Mr. Speaker, allow me to start my presentation as I did all my speeches on this topic, two weeks ago.
What is remarkable with this government and with the bill before us is how the government ended up imposing its view on this issue. We are increasingly wondering about the type of democracy that prevails in the House of Commons. I am primarily alluding to the government's way of doing things by always silencing the opposition through closure.
The other day, Reform Party members told us that the government used closure 53 times. I imagine this figure applies to the past two parliaments. Based on the figures that we have, from 1997 until now, closure was used 24 times regarding bills reviewed in the House of Commons.
One has to wonder. Does this House truly have the opportunity to do an in-depth review of the bills? It seems that when the government has a priority, it just wants to pass the related legislation. When the government is faced with some opposition, it resorts to closure, to a time allocation motion, and tells us “Unfortunately for you, it is over. This is how we want to proceed. If you are not happy, discuss the issue during the few additional hours that we are giving you and then it will be over and we will vote on the legislation”.
This is what I call the tyranny of the majority. Unfortunately, this tyranny does not exist only in the House. We regularly experience it in the committees as well. I am a member of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and I note that, in committee, when the government wants to pass a bill and seems to consider that enough is enough, the majority automatically steps in.
I have nothing against the majority, because I think that democracy must function with a majority, but excessive imposition of closure on the opposition makes me think that democracy is sometimes in doubt. In fact I would say that it is definitely in doubt. Two weeks ago, in debates, they did this on a number of occasions.
I thought it important to begin my speech today by saying that, with this bill, closure was once again imposed at second reading, at report stage and is now being imposed at third reading.
By the end of this evening, the members of the government and ourselves will decide the fate of $30 billion, which should belong to the employees. The government imposed closure and is now going to tell us that it is going to take this $30 billion. I find that absolutely deplorable.
I also want to speak of the government's arrogance. When the bill was introduced, the government House leader was all smiles, not only at imposing closure on the opposition, but also at continuing the tradition of imposition in Ottawa, with these employees, in these terms “We are taking over the $30 billion, we are not negotiating with you, we are the ones deciding. The people elected us, and we are deciding that there is a $30 billion surplus in this fund. There will be no discussion with you of sharing. We are taking it and we will see about it afterwards”. Not only is the government using closure to excess, but it does so with considerable arrogance.
If I look at the way it is done in the case of other pension funds, it is clear that, when a government that is both judge and jury—the government is the legislator and the employer—decides that there is too much of a surplus or that it wants to change employee contributions, the situation is very delicate.
I do not want to say that, in Quebec, we are better than elsewhere, but the tradition in Quebec is one of negotiation, which is not the case in Ottawa. While negotiations may be long at times, they may be difficult, pressure may be exerted, a negotiated solution is still better than an imposed one.
Recently, I read through a study in which the government was trying to find out why public servants are so dissatisfied and no longer motivated at work. If one looks at the government's behaviour over the last few years, or even the last few decades, one can see that it very seldom negotiates with its employees. It lets collective agreements drag on even after they have expired, adds 1 or 2% and finally imposes a settlement. On top of that, it limits job action even though it is allowed under the Canada Labour Code.
Job action is allowed in a democracy. When workers are dissatisfied, there are legal means of expressing their dissatisfaction. These are provided for in the Canada Labour Code. Striking is one of them, and job action is another. But this government does not give people the opportunity to use those means. Moreover, as I said earlier, it is both employer and legislator.
Its strategy is very simple. By blocking negotiations or delaying them it forces workers to take some kind of job action. Then it brings in special legislation—like the one passed the other day—to impose a settlement, arguing that employees are holding the state hostage, which, by the way, is absolutely false. The government does not give people the opportunity to carry through the bargaining process.
Let us come back to the infamous special legislation brought in by the government no too long ago, when we spent the night here so the government could force public servants back to work. I give this example because it is particularly outrageous. Personally I found that the President of the Treasury Board was adding insult to injury when, at two in the morning, he came and told us that an agreement in principle had been reached with government employees.
Instead of letting the process run its course and saying “We have done our part; it is now up to the workers to approve the agreement in general assemblies”, the government added insult to injury by allowing debate to continue all night and forcing the employees back to work anyway.
That goes to show the government's attitude, which is to continually impose its views not only on its employees but also on the opposition, always using drastic means like legislation to force public service employees back to work and closure to gag the opposition. That is totally unacceptable and that shows arrogance.
The President of the Treasury Board, who is the sponsor of the bill, just spoke in support of his bill. I would say he hardly spoke more than 10 minutes. Of course, hon. members have limited time to speak, but anyone who does not have much to say and wants to slip a bill through discreetly and rapidly does not spend much time talking about its legal and moral implications. The present government has no moral values and that is why the President of the Treasury Board talked only ten minutes about his bill at third reading.
I would like to quote a statement made by the President of the Treasury Board not so long ago. In 1996, he asked for consultations on the pension plan. He said:
Consultations could lead to a partnership that would establish in the public service the concept of a management committee at arm's length with the government.
But what did the President of the Treasury Board do? Exactly the opposite of what he said in 1996.
In 1998, it was announced in a press release by the Treasury Board Secretariat that the government had agreed to a number of recommendations made by the advisory committee in a report that was the result of four years of painstaking work by union representatives, retirees and government officials. That is what was said in the press release of the Treasury Board Secretariat in 1998.
Now, through the President of the Treasury Board, the government has done exactly the opposite of what it said it would do. When a government sets up an advisory committee, one really has to wonder.
It has said to its employees: “A small surplus seems to be building up, and maybe we should sit down and discuss this”. What did the government do, in the end? Through the bill before us, it is grabbing whatever it feels like. The government is making off with $30 billion.
This leads me to talk about the government's management practices. What kind of management has the Liberal government been practising since it came to power in 1993 and since it was re-elected in 1997?
I have been listening to the finance minister. Like I said, Star Wars is now very popular, and we have long waiting lines outside movie theatres. I feel that the finance minister is the Darth Vader of this House. I will explain why later. His shadow can be seen everywhere he tries to put his hand on surpluses. Whenever funds generate surpluses, the government cannot wait to get its hands on them, and the Minister of Finance always has a say in the matter.
Let us look at how the government has been managing things these last few years. First, it said “We have agreed on a certain proportion of transfers to the provinces”. The province of Quebec, for instance, has lost some $2.5 billion in just a few years.
The government simply decided to cut transfers to the provinces. That created a huge problem for the provincial governments in their own areas of jurisdiction, that is to say anything having to do with health, education and, as far as we are concerned, welfare. That is what they called the CHST.
The government agreed to transfer some funds to the provinces to help them solve these problems. What happened was highly predictable. When the provincial governments, including Quebec, received less than they expected, problems started to emerge: crowded emergency wards, lack of equipment, personnel cuts, budget cuts for health institutions and education. Welfare programs were also affected.
Provinces were crippled by the government's decision to cut transfers. The federal government was able to start reducing the deficit. They kept bragging, saying “This is remarkable. See how well we can manage public affairs”.
Darth Vader himself, the Minister of Finance, came to tell the House “See how we are putting the economy back on its feet—extraordinary”. Transfer payments were the first step: less money transferred to the provinces means more money for the federal government.
The other question that can be raised concerning this government's management style relates to the employment insurance fund. A huge reform has taken place. Before, when people lost their jobs, seven out of ten of them qualified for employment insurance. Now that number is 3.5, or nearly 4. Half of those who used to be eligible no longer are.
As well, this fund is increasing by $6 billion or $7 billion every year. Perhaps $25 billion have gone into the government's pockets in recent years. That same reform also resulted in people having to pay into employment insurance regardless of how many hours they work. In the past some were excluded, for instance students with weekend jobs. Now students and others with weekend jobs have to pay starting with the first cent they earn. They have to pay, but what is shocking is that they will never be able to qualify for benefits.
This fund is continuing to grow and the Darth Vader of this House continues to say that he is managing public funds very well. Several billions are not being transferred to the provinces and end up in the kitty, the EI fund. The government continues to pocket between $6 billion and $7 billion every year.
Another question on the way the government is managing things, getting back to the matter of its employees once again, is the whole business of pay equity. The President of the Treasury Board performed intellectual gymnastics with this. It is incredible how flexible he can be in the stances he takes.
The Liberals initially acknowledged the problem a little bit. Then they were told “You have to pay these people”. During negotiations, the people said that the government probably owed them between $2 billion and $7 billion, because the women in the federal public service are paid less well than in other sectors of employment. This has been proven.
The President of the Treasury Board kept trying to push back the deadline. He began by saying that he would wait for the decisions on this issue for other sectors of the economy, which would certainly have an effect on the government's position.
These decisions were made public a long time ago. There is the problem of pay equity. It has been corrected elsewhere, but it has yet to be corrected by this government. The House's Darth Vader continues to say “The way I manage this economy and the public finances of this government is phenomenal”.
We have just been talking about several billion dollars in the employment insurance fund because the government does not pay fairly women working in the federal public service. The latest discovery of the President of the Treasury Board, surely on the advice of the forces of evil, the shadow in this House, is the $30 billion surplus in the fund belonging to the employees of the federal public service. Thirty billion dollars is not peanuts.
We are talking about a surplus of $14.9 billion for the public service, $2.4 billion for the RCMP and $12.9 billion for the Canadian armed forces.
The government is wondering. Earlier I was saying that they want to do psychological studies to find out why the employees of the federal public service are dissatisfied and are not working up to par. There were also reports explaining why Canadian forces members had so little motivation.
Considering the attitude of the President of the Treasury Board and his government, it is easy to understand why federal public servants, like members of the Canadian armed forces, are often unmotivated. They do not have a say in anything. Again, as I said earlier, this is the tyranny of the majority.
The government imposes taxes, dips into funds, does as it pleases, continues to gag the opposition and keeps imposing working conditions on the whole public service. All this is very hard to accept.
One might understand if the government targeted people who enjoy a gold plated pension, but we are talking about public servants who, as retirees, have annual incomes of $9,400. Who did the government decide to target? It is these people.
The government had other options. It could have negotiated with its public service. It could have said “We realize that there are surpluses. Perhaps we could try to improve the plan. Instead of paying you $9,400, we may be able to give you up to $12,000”. The government could also have said to participants “There are surpluses. Therefore, we will give you a contribution holiday and you will not have to make contributions for a few years, so as to use up some of the surpluses. Afterwards, we will use the same contribution rates but, for a few years, you will not have to contribute”. However, this is not what the government did.
It runs away with the $30 billion pot and then says “Now, we will put in place certain provisions, so that if this situation occurs again, we will be able to react more quickly”.
What will happen when the $30 billion are gone and the federal public sector realizes, perhaps a few years from now—I hope not, but it could happen—that there is not enough in the plan to pay employees retiring in one, two or ten years? The government will probably tell contributors that it is sorry but that its actuarial forecasts oblige it to take action, as it did with the CPP, where premiums were increased. The same thing may well happen.
Once the government gets its hands on the surplus, contributors will probably be told that there are problems and that premiums are being increased. It is outrageous.
A number of terms have been used in the House and I want to mention them again. They are parliamentary. Everyone has avoided using unparliamentary language. In my view, the parliamentary terms used so far are quite significant. They include making off with, siphoning off, raiding, controling, and swindling. I think that they are all descriptive of this government's attitude towards its employees.
I would also like to look at what this will mean. Some of my constituents are listening today. There is a military base in my riding with a large population of Canadian forces members. Members of the RCMP also live there.
Most retired members of these three groups receive an average pension of $9,400 a year. It might be different for members of the RCMP because they earn a little more and therefore receive slighter higher pensions, but Canadian forces members are not extremely well paid and public sector blue collar workers in Saint-Jean are earning perhaps $30,000 or $32,000 a year and will receive a pension of $9,400 a year.
We are talking about regional economy. What will someone receiving $9,400 a year going to do with that amount? Spend it. There is no question of looking into investments, buying mutual funds and playing the stock market on an annual income of $9,400.
These people spend their money in their own ridings, for housing, for clothing, for food and sometimes for a little outing. This is about all they can afford with $9,400.
Now, imagine what would happen if the government decided to upgrade pensions. These people could afford better housing and clothing, higher quality leisure activities, more travel. All that would strengthen the economy.
Just in the case of the employment insurance fund I talked about earlier, the $6 billion to $7 billion stolen each year from the unemployed represent $21 million for the riding of Saint-Jean. This is not peanuts. Further more, if women had pay equity, they could spend more in their riding, and this would be over and above the $21 million.
When people cannot increase their annual income with their retirement fund, this represents another loss for regional economies. The government is siphoning off money not only from the public service but also from the economy of the riding of Saint-Jean and other ridings in Quebec and Canada.
I thought it was important to share these facts with the House. People often believe that the government is doing the right thing and taxpayers ask: “Will that affect me? Will Bill C-78 affect me? NO, this will not affect me, but it will affect employees of the federal public service”. For instance, people who have a business, who sell houses or condos or have a grocery store should understand that the less money there is in ridings, the slower the economy will be.
Earlier, we raised questions about the government's management practices. There are even more questions when it comes to such matters as R&D and the procurement of goods and services. This is one more thing that affects Quebec directly.
Quebec contributes about 24% of the tax base, but when it comes to categories of expenditures that are important to Quebec, whether R&D or the procurement of goods and services, there is no more equity. To give an example relating to R&D, in the Ottawa-Hull region, there are 43 research centres. Of that number, 42 are in Ottawa, and 1 in Hull. That strikes me as a pretty flagrant lack of fairness.
Research centres are real generators of truly high-paying jobs. This is also true for the procurement of goods and services. The government is the largest purchaser of goods and services in Canada, which it would have to be, considering the size of its budget, but instead of encouraging the regional economy, there is a shortfall of several hundred million dollars in Quebec. That is a lot.
It is said that the rate of unemployment in Quebec is higher. What if the government decided to be fair where the procurement of goods and services are concerned? It would buy more in Quebec and this would generate more employment. But it has not done so. It is penalizing Quebec as far as procurement of goods and services, and research and development, are concerned.
As well, it is pocketing money from all the sources I have already referred to: transfer payments to the provinces, the employment insurance fund, pay equity, and its latest discovery, the public service pension funds.
I now wish to speak a bit about same sex spouses. As I said two weeks ago, I think the government is treading on eggshells somewhat with this.
For the series of amendments concerning same sex partners, the government has decided to hold a free vote. I wonder if the government will hold a free vote this evening or whether it will oblige Liberal members who were not in agreement with this clause to vote in favour of it this evening. Some members have expressed very interesting points of view. I had mine, I expressed it and I put it into practice when I voted on the amendment as such.
What is deplorable with this approach, these specificities and the provisions of the bill is that the government is going to force people to perhaps vote against their conscience. In my opinion, the government should have introduced a specific bill on same sex partners.
In Quebec City, the government introduced a sort of omnibus bill, which will really allow, once and for all, a clean-up of regulations and laws in Quebec, because the courts are according more and more rights to same sex partners. We saw this again last week. Decisions are recognizing these people increasingly.
But the problem here is that the government is resolving things piecemeal. This is not the first matter resolved in such a fashion. The other day I gave the example of native women who have no protection on an Indian reserve when a household is being broken up. Instead of settling the heart of the issue, the government introduces bills concerning natives, and women's lobbies want to introduce amendments to each of these bills to take into account the fact that these women are not protected on the reserves.
The same thing is happening here. The government lacks courage. Instead of settling the heart of the problem, it is introducing legislation piecemeal. It just did so in Bill C-78, with all its attendant problems. Some people may agree with taking money from the funds, but they do not agree with there being same sex partners and vice versa. Some people may oppose the bill, but be in favour of measures for same sex partners. They are going to have to make a choice this evening.
The government should have resolved the fundamental issue, since this would have saved time for parliament. Indeed, every time a bill on economic matters comes before the House, some will say “We want same sex spouses to be specifically recognized in this bill”. The government is taking a piecemeal approach, instead of resolving the fundamental issue. I realize that this approach could take more time, because it is a moral issue. There could even be a free vote on this specific bill.
However, for the time being, the government has decided not to use that approach. It is taking a piecemeal approach. There are members from both sides of the House who have spoken freely on the impact of the fact that, from now on, same sex spouses will be entitled to their deceased spouse's government pension. However, it may well be that, next year if not in a month or two, the government will introduce another bill dealing with economic matters, and lobbies for same sex spouses will come back and say “We want amendments on this”. We will once again be forced to have a debate on specific provisions, because the issue will not have been dealt with globally in the first place.
I want to raise another point. Recently, the government has been telling us “You know, we contribute 70% of the public service employees pension fund”. Obviously, one can use statistics to support any position.
It may be that, in the past two, three or four years, the government did contribute 70% of the money paid into the fund. However, if we look back further, we realize that, from 1924 to 1998, the government's contribution to the employees' fund only amounted to 48% of the total. It wants to make off with 100% of the surplus, and that is what is particularly scandalous. I think the government could have been more flexible with its unions and negotiated something more acceptable and equitable, instead of what it finally did. Having contributed 48% for 74 years, it decided to make off with, help itself to, siphon off 100% of the surplus. It is an utter disgrace.
Now I would like to turn to the example the government is setting for the private sector. Last time, I mentioned internationally renowned financiers, now dead. There was Robert Maxwell, a press baron in England. He sailed the seven seas in a yacht financed by his own employees' pension plan. It was scandalous.
These people were all denounced by workers, those who know the value of the $15 or $20 dollars a week they hand over to the government or their employer to pay for a decent retirement.
People know what it means to take $20 of what they earn every week and hand it over to the government. They also know what it means when the government says it is going to help itself to the surplus. They know that it is utterly unfair. The government is setting a precedent. It is going to send a message to employers, particularly those in the private sector. They will be able to say that, if there are any surpluses in their funds, they will be entitled to help themselves because the money belongs to them.
That is how this government, which makes laws and employs people, thinks. It tells itself that, since it administers the plan, it will help itself to any surpluses. The House should consider what this will mean in the private sector.
Last time, I spoke about who this attitude hurt most and I am going to do so again, because it is completely unfair. I am referring to Singer employees. A few years ago, the Bloc Quebecois began to ask questions on this issue. This case was widely publicised. Many people believe that the issue has been settled, that the Singer employees won a victory and that $1.7 billion was shared between survivors. Almost half of the employees are now dead and their average age is 84. Yet people believe that the issue has been settled.
What they do not know, and I want to repeat this today, is that between 1942 and 1967, the federal government was responsible, through government annuities, for the Singer employees' fund. The government, which was the watchdog of the retirement fund of the Singer employees, allowed that company to dip into the surplus.
In 1967, some $400,000 should have been paid back to employees as a bonus. The government decided otherwise. It allowed Singer to dip in the surplus. An amount of $400,000, in 1967 dollars, would be the equivalent of $6 million to $7 million today, an amount which should belong to employees of Singer.
I know what I am talking about, because my father worked for Singer for 45 years. He is now retired and gets government annuities, an astronomical $20 a month. All this because the government allowed a company to walk away with the jackpot under the cover of a holiday on premiums.
Today, we understand, with Bill C-78, why the government of the day acted that way. Three different human resources development ministers told us “This is not our fault, we deny any responsibility and we do not want to pay.”
In 1994-1995, the Bloc started asking questions about Singer. What was happening at the time? The federal public service pension funds were starting to generate a surplus. There were surely some mean-spirited people in the government who decided that they were not about to recognize their responsibility and reimburse former Singer employees. “Because we allowed Singer to stop paying premiums, we cannot do that. If the surplus in our own pension plan, in the federal public service pension plan, continues to grow, we will have to get our hands on it”.
We, in the Bloc Quebecois, realize that the first victims were the Singer workers. But they were only the first victims, because there will be many more to come. The government is paving the way for all private employers, by sending them the message that they will be able to get their hands on any surpluses they have. You have to agree that this sets a precedent. Of course, we are also talking about federally regulated funds.
Last week, I took part in a show about Bill C-78. People told me that, under the provincial legislation, provincially regulated employers acting this way would probably go to jail or pay huge fines.
Employers who have some kind of link with the federal government will feel they no longer have their hands tied. Who will benefit from this bill, the employers or the workers? Who gives money to this irresponsible and arrogant government? Is it the low income workers or retirees who receive $9,000 a year? No. It is the large corporations, the big banks, the large insurance companies, the huge multinationals, those who refuse contributions when we ask for them.
We tell them, “The Bloc Quebecois needs money, but you have to give us a personal cheque”. That does not work. People from Bell Canada tell me, “Look, Mr. Bachand, every time you organize a cocktail party, we have a cheque for you”. But it is a cheque from Bell, and we can only accept personal cheques.
The banks tell me the same thing. Whose interests is this government defending? I think it is defending the interests of the banks, of insurance companies, of Bell. In the report of the chief electoral officer, I see that Bell Canada gives $50,000 or $60,000 to the Liberal Party, and the same goes for Nortel. The Bloc Quebecois gets absolutely nothing. Who is the government favouring with a bill such as the one before us today?
To whom is the government saying that, from now on, they will be able to use any surplus in their pension plan? To the big banks whose profits already total $6 or $7 billion a year, to the big multinationals such as Bell Canada, which will probably have a surplus of $1 billion this year, after having just laid off about a thousand employees.
The workers and the retirees are beginning to understand who really defends their interests in the Parliament of Canada. It is the members of the Bloc Quebecois and those who will oppose this bill today. Those who will agree with this bill are government members, and those who will congratulate the government are big banks, insurance companies and multinationals. They can at last see the light at the end of the tunnel.
For those corporate interests, billions of dollars in profit each year are never quite enough. If there are a few extra billions to be made at the expense of workers or retirees, they will not say no. They are quite willing to grab their employees' pension fund.
This is the kind of terrible precedent the government is setting. I hope the workers and the retirees will understand that the $20 they have contributed every week for years will not be used to help them in their retirement, but for something else. I hope people will remember this when the time comes to vote.
I would like to come back to the financing of political parties. For the Bloc Quebecois, money should not be a factor in a democracy, and we should abide by the principle of one person, one vote. I once told big companies like Bell they could keep the $500 cheque they were handing to me. I will never have my hands tied by big multinationals. Those who vote for the Bloc Quebecois are workers, retirees who have a hard time making ends meet, people in trouble and people who are persecuted by the governments.
We are in a very good position, because we will never want to become cabinet ministers. The Bloc Quebecois will never want to become the government. I think voters do understand who is in a better position to speak on their behalf. Is it the government party, which accepts cheques from major corporations, or is it the small parties, the ones sensitive to workers? These parties will collect $5 or $10 on far flung concession roads or hard to reach streets. We do not have our hands tied.
This is why we can say the sort of thing we are saying today. This is why today we can tell the government that it is arrogant, ill-advised, excessively appropriating money, incapable of managing public finances in a reasonable fashion.
The fact that these workers support us with their $5 and $10 contributions allows me to say what I am saying today to this government. I think people will be grateful to us and, when the time comes to make a democratic choice, it will be one person, one vote, but all of these votes in Quebec will mean that the Bloc Quebecois will be back for the next election, should we decide to come back.