Madam Speaker, I feel it is very important to speak to this debate because it is such a change in public policy and a change that is done unilaterally, without the support of the unions involved, the public or other members of parliament.
As in most legislation Bill C-78 has much that is good and much that is bad. The bad far outweighs the good in this legislation which is part of a larger pattern of the government to take public money and transfer it into private hands. Once that happens the public good is not at the top of priorities to turn that money around and serve our communities through building roads, hospitals or schools.
I will deal with the good in the legislation first because, as I said, there is not that much of it. The good is that there is a dental plan for beneficiaries. Because we are thinking of people who are retired, this is a particularly important element. It is important to have and would be a very important change. The benefits will be calculated on the last five years rather than the last six, which would result in a slight increase.
It recognizes benefits for same sex couples. That section is a very dramatic change. It is long awaited and is indeed necessary.
It would increase the supplementary death benefit. Initially this was being negotiated, but unfortunately it broke down over what to do with the $30 billion surplus, over representation on the new investment board and joint management of the fund or some input from labour and plan members.
The government then decided to proceed with the legislation rather than continue to pursue a negotiated settlement. That is incredibly unfortunate because it means that it is not possible for the New Democrats to support the legislation.
There are two really important points. The investment board will be a 12 member board charged with the responsibility of investing funds on the open market. We are speaking about $30 billion, an unbelievable and incredible amount of money, that will be put on the open market. These members would be appointed by the minister through a nominating committee of other members who might be retirees.
We need to be concerned that appointments to the investment board might be for purely patronage reasons. Who benefits from these changes? It will not be the pensioners because their actual pensions will not increase. They will not get any more, but they will not get any less. The employees will be paying more.
We have to question the rationale of these changes when the very essence of a pension plan is to deduct money from the employees and save it for them so it will be there when they retire. However, they will not benefit from the changes in this legislation.
There is a benefit for those who will be investing it and for those who will be receiving it. The flipping of capital will cost millions in brokerage fees. Bay Street will enjoy a windfall when shares and stocks are bought and sold but the employees and the pensioners will not.
Labour has always argued that pension surpluses are the exclusive property of the employees and retired plan members and should be used for nothing other than their benefit. This is a key issue. It is paramount and must reinforced. As this surplus is all from deferred wages and part of the pay package, it should be returned to the employees.
The other change is that any surplus above $9 billion will trigger either the cessation of employer-employee contributions for a period of time, a premium holiday, or government could simply take the surplus and use it for whatever it wants without any consultation with the employees or pensioners. This means it could be a very important source of revenue for the government when in fact it is the property of the employees.
Currently there is no provision to increase benefits other than by an act of parliament. It is a defined benefit plan that has an obligation to pay each recipient a fixed amount regardless of the condition of the fund.
I heard over and over today that the government takes all the risk so it should be able to do whatever it wants with the money when there is a surplus. It feels that because it has to assume the risk of providing a defined benefit, even if the plan was in a deficit, it deserves to keep the surplus when the plan is healthy. This is convoluted logic that we cannot accept.
The pension is part of the wage package. Proof of this is that the government uses the fact that there is a pension plan to justify relatively low wages. Even though the pension is not negotiated at the bargaining table, both parties refer to it and acknowledge it.
Additional proof that employees own the pension moneys lies in the fact that in a company under federal jurisdiction, workers have to vote by a two-third majority to let the employer take out any of the surplus. This law recognizes the surplus is the property of the employees who must vote on whether to release it. Obviously that is not happening here.
The government is acting unilaterally. It does not even want to share in the decisions. No agreement has been reached with the union, nor does the government have any plans to include the union on a joint union-management board. Instead, the government intends to appoint directors to the board. These actions reinforce the misleading view of who bears the risks and rewards of pension plans.
Employers have typically justified their grab on pension surpluses on the grounds that they take the risks so they should get the rewards. However, pension plan management makes it more likely that surpluses will accrue, so there are very few risks.
If we are going to think of it in those terms, let us imagine an individual who has saved money throughout his or her life in preparation for retirement, and a bank says “I want that money to pay my debts. You have kept it in my bank all these years and I have had the risk of storing it. It is my money and I will use it however I want. You have no say in it”. What we are facing is our government telling us “What is yours is mine and what is mine is my own business, so you can just take a hike. We will do what we think is best ”. I have never seen democracy work like that. What we are facing is a raid or just plain piracy of a pension plan. That $30 billion is an incredible amount of money, and the decisions made about it belong with the people who pay into it and the pensioners who will be receiving it.
I listened to a debate earlier on the Liberal side where a member said that the New Democratic Party should not be agitating and getting the seniors and elders all upset over this.
I found this incredibly patronizing because the seniors and elders I know can certainly read, write, think and analyse, and they do lobby and vote. They have come here and lobbied. They have made decisions and have analysed that this is not a good way to deal with pensions. They are not even doing this for themselves because their pensions will not change. They will not get any more out of this. However, they have the wisdom and strength to know that these changes will have an effect on those who come after them. I always believed it was our job as members of parliament to be thinking of those who come after us, not of our own smaller interests but the greater interests of our country.
Another point that bothered me was when a Liberal member stood up and said that we had these crazy ideas about wanting to invest pension money in maybe ethical stocks or bonds, or that it should even be a consideration of what is done with the money.
I know a heck of a lot of people who do not want one cent of their money being invested in nuclear arms, in small arms, in factories where children are forced into labour and women are locked in for 14 to 16 hours a day to produce cheap goods, or in situations where the money they are saving for their retirement could be used to undermine their own jobs.
Consideration should be given to using the money saved in this country to build our own roads, hospitals, schools and universities and to do it at a good rate of return so that we can educate our children. Maybe we could help those in the far corners of the country who normally would not have any access to schools, roads or hospitals. That is a very good use of money and should always be a consideration when pooled money within a country is being distributed for whatever reason. We should be looking after our own people first.
The changes in the pension plan will disproportionately affect women. The average pension will be $9,600 per year which is not a lot to live on. However, women have borne the brunt of a lot of changes that have happened through the Liberal government. They have borne the cost of our health cuts and the sexual abuse in our military. The government has denied them pay equity and, in many cases, they are denied unemployment insurance premiums.
What is it for? It is not for the common good of our country. It is not for the betterment of living conditions anywhere. These changes are indeed changes that would please the corporate titans of the country to move money away from those who need it and put it into the hands of those who do not.
Even though there are good changes proposed in Bill C-78, the bad far outweigh anything that the legislation would bring forward. It is very disappointing not to be able to support pension plan changes just because they will not benefit those who need them most.