Madam Speaker, Bill C-78 is a technical bill.
In fact, it is the basis for another federal government attack on its employees. It is, I would say, a new manifestation of its refusal to deal with its public service, in the broadest sense, since the Public Sector Pension Investment Board administers the pensions of several groups of Crown employees who are not, strictly speaking, public servants.
Once again, the government is showing that it does not want to negotiate, be involved in joint administration or create the partnership of which it has spoken in the past.
It would be terrible if we had to admit that the government is not capable of considering a joint administration of pension funds, discussed and negotiated with, and agreed to by, the unions, as there is in Quebec for example. That is my first point.
The second, and one I wish to stress, is that the federal government is taking advantage of a lack of clearness in the first act, in order to get its hands on all the surpluses. These are already beyond what is necessary, beyond what was recommended by actuaries to ensure that there will be enough money to pay pensions. The federal government is not the only one to contribute, but it decides that it will be the one who can dispose of this surplus.
In this case, public servants have, on several occasions, had to face layoffs and offers of early retirement, and this has had an important part to play in the feelings of discouragement among those who were left.
When I was on the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development, we heard repeatedly from experts that, when the remaining staff see their colleagues offered early retirement, they wonder “When will it be my turn?” This does a great deal to discourage them, and no doubt undermines to some extent their loyalty, a loyalty that is so essential if the state is to serve its people well.
These employees are already working under extremely difficult conditions in a context of diminished resources and conflict. We need only think of the last settlement and the last special law, the knife at the throat for a major group of employees.
We need only recall this to realize that once again, with the wounds barely closed and not properly healed, the government is using its absolute power—it is not only the employer but the legislator—to decide it will use the surplus over and above what is needed to make sure pension funds are paid out well according to current regulations.
This is the interpretation given this bill, and I have seen nothing that would lead me to say otherwise. That means that this decision deprives those already retired of increases.
I would like to make an aside. We are beginning to see the negative side of what appeared to be golden handshakes, the package offered those who agreed, under what seemed to be extraordinary conditions, to terminate their employment.
The money given them in exchange for their giving up their job security looked to be significant. However, we are beginning to see that a number of these employees, who were tempted to start up a small business or become self-employed have found themselves in difficult straits at an age where finding a job is infinitely harder. So they have added to the number of people in society looking for work and having a hard time finding it.
There are a number of other issues, and perhaps I will have time to address them, but I want to mention that the government wants nothing to do with treating its employees as managers who are involved in the security that must surround the management of pension funds.
In 1996, a joint committee was struck to try to make recommendations to guide the government, which, at that time, seemed to be of an excellent disposition. It is interesting to see that the committee had proposed that a board of directors comprise six members representing the employers and six members representing the workers and one retiree without voting privilege. This is what the advisory committee recommended in December 1996.
A little while later, the President of the Treasury Board said in a release that the government had accepted a certain number of these recommendations. He said:
A report, the result of four years of conscientious work by union representatives, retired public servants, and public servants who are still working.
Yet none of the recommendations made by this committee—which the minister said did its work conscientiously—was followed up on in any way.
And yet, that is possible. A long time ago, I was on a negotiating committee that agreed with the Government of Quebec that the public sector employees' pension fund—and this was the case in the various unions and departments—would be co-managed, that we would agree on investment rules. In other words, unionized employees and workers would have a say in how their money was invested.
Sometimes, the maximum rate of return is sought, but at other times the goal might be a vehicle that not only has an excellent a rate of return but that has a more social goal, that emphasizes job creation.
Having a joint management committee for a pension fund puts the onus on both parties. Quebec has operated this way for a long time. During the public finance crisis, the parties jointly negotiated how surpluses would be used. It was not the government's first idea, but it finally realized that it was advisable to make it easier for those employees wishing to retire to do so under advantageous conditions. The unions were involved, and were in fact the first to come up with the proposal. A comment could be made, but the point is that this was the result of joint negotiations.
Why is it not possible federally to reach an agreement with employees, with pensioners represented, on how their retirement money is going to be managed, on improvements where possible, and on the sharing of risks? The committee agreed on how the risks and the surpluses would be shared.
I have gone through this bill, which creates a public sector pension investment board. There is the word board again. Not only is it not a body with equal representation, but a committee of eight members must first be appointed and then make recommendations to appoint a board of 12 directors.
Do unions enjoy equal representation on that board? Are they fully represented? No, and this is very unfortunate. The government is creating a board, which it claims will be operating at arm's length from the minister. That is what it claims.
The government claims that the board is not an agent of Her Majesty and is therefore not accountable. In fact, that board is appointed if not directly, at least indirectly, by the minister. It will be the minister who will choose the committee members who, in turn, will select directors. This is particularly true in the case of the chairperson.
One thing, among others, that struck me is how the investing will be done. The board's objects are defined as follows: b ) to invest its assets with a view to achieving a maximum rate of return, without undue risk of loss, having regard to the funding, policies and requirements of the pension plans established under the Acts referred to in paragraph ( a ) and the ability of those plans to meet their financial obligations.
Then the bill provides that the governor in council may determine what percentage of funds is to be set aside to buy Government of Canada bonds, and what rules should be used to calculate that percentage.
Not only is the government using the surpluses already accumulated, which total approximately $30 billion and are beyond what is necessary to maintain the pension plans, but it will also use that $30 billion to pay its share of contributions. The government is giving itself 15 years. In addition, it decides on the rules governing the investment, in addition to giving a very specific mandate to the board to “invest its assets with a view to achieving a maximum rate of return, without undue risk of loss”.
We are living in a period where workers and social organizations are becoming increasingly aware that investments can affect the economy we live in.
The only mandate here is a maximum rate of return, “without undue risk of loss”. What does “undue” mean? If we take a big risk that could bring a significant return, is the risk undue?
In this current period, this provision bothers me quite a bit. I am sure many people in the unions will wonder why they have no say and why they too cannot make choices.
All that looks a lot like this government's approach to managing transfer payments, where the government reduced its deficit by transferring it through significant cuts to health care, education and social welfare up to the latest budget. In this budget, it is far from returning the situation in these fields to what it had been, even though it has guaranteed investments over five years of $11.5 billion. We are a long way from where we were before.
This is the same government that made major cuts to unemployment insurance programs. It reduced accessibility. It reduced benefits and the length of their payment.
This is also the same government that is now equipping itself to take the surpluses in the pension funds. Instead of agreeing to share the administration with the unions, it makes decisions by equipping itself with mechanisms which appear to put it at a distance.
Anyone reading this with care will see that the government is accomplishing indirectly what it does not want to do directly. It is hobbling the board to such an extent that it has no leeway, moreover I would not want it to.
I would be tempted to make use of a word that is unparliamentary. It means to try to appear to be doing something other than what one is actually doing. I trust that is clear. Saying that one is doing one thing, while doing another. The government is not keeping its distance, but instead of managing jointly with employees, it creates a body to serve its interests, which is most regrettable.
We have had a number of opportunities in this House to speak of the government's relationship with the public sector, and I would like in closing to make a comparison. The federal government's inability to deal properly with public sector employees in something as natural as the pension funds, an area in which agreement should be reachable, reminds me of the way it treats the Quebec people.