This allows the big companies to report record profits. Things are not going well. The price of gasoline has reached 84 cents a litre, and the companies are announcing record profits. In addition to making record profits, the companies are announcing massive layoffs. In addition to making more money, they are going to get rid of people so they can make even more money.
Is that acceptable in a free and democratic society such as Canada? Absolutely not. The Minister of Industry will say “But this is not our fault. This is a worldwide phenomenon with the prices of OPEC, with the Arabs, Kuwait, the producing countries and Venezuela”.
This is why we in the Bloc Quebecois are saying that it is time to do some housekeeping. It is time to look and see if there is perhaps a bit of incest in the relations among the companies. We should ask the Competition Bureau to do this, but, in the meantime, the government ought to free us, by cutting the excise tax by 10 cents a litre now, to provide the time necessary to look into the situation.
In the House last Thursday or Friday, the Minister of Finance said that the Minister of Industry had commissioned a study. Do people realize when this study will be made public? The Minister of Industry has ordered that it be released by the end of the year—December 31, 2000.
The Minister of Finance promised us wonderful tax cuts. “My February 28, 2000 budget,” he proudly told us “contains tax cuts for 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004”. Right now, with the recent increase in the price of gasoline and the price of energy in general, we can see that, if something is not done immediately, any gains from these tax cuts will be completely wiped out for certain categories of the public.
This is totally unacceptable. The left hand is promising tax cuts and the right hand—not that there is one—is doing nothing. With the increase in the price of gasoline and energy, the upshot is that any gains from these tax cuts will be completely wiped out until 2004.
There is a lot of talk about gasoline. This inflationary spiral will have an impact on many industries. I mentioned the transportation sector, so food transported by truck, but there are a number of industries using petroleum-based products that will have to pass on price hikes to consumers. I will give an example.
I and the members for Témiscamingue, Lotbinière and Sherbrooke, all of us representing the Bloc Quebecois, visited 21 ridings in Quebec. We travelled to all regions and held press conferences, offering information specific to each of the regions we visited. We were able to note how much change there had been in prices at the pump between February 1999 and when we made our tour in March and April 2000.
At some service stations we held press conferences. The press conference I particularly remember, however, was the one at a greenhouse in Rivière-des-Mille-Îles. One tends to forget that the entire greenhouse industry is heavily dependent on energy costs.
This is the time when we are preparing our yards and putting in our summer plantings, and the nursery owner, who grows potted plants in his greenhouses, told us what the increase in fuel oil meant to his costs. This was a small grower. At the present time, the major producers have the opportunity to heat with natural gas, but operators of small or medium businesses who are trying to earn a living do not have the means to convert to natural gas. They are still dependent on fuel oil, the price of which has risen in leaps and bounds over the past year.
This greenhouse operator told us “I have two choices. Either I keep prices at last year's level, and assume the increased cost of fuel oil, or I try to pass the increase on to the customer. If I do that, I have to compete with the major American chains, which have the opportunity of buying in bulk, so they can really slash their prices. There is no certainty that I will be able to make it through this coming summer”.
The rise in heating oil prices was mentioned in his case, but there is also a rise in the cost of styrofoam containers. Styrofoam is a petroleum based product. Styrofoam suppliers, such as Cascade in the Drummondville region or in the Kingsey Falls region, which produce styrofoam flats and plastics of all kinds, polyethylenes, will be hit with an unavoidable price increase. Farm producers will either absorb it or pass it on to consumers. The wheel keeps turning, and the same consumers, the same taxpayers, take the blow. This government, with its surplus of $95 billion, should do something about the increase in the price of gasoline.
A second aspect I would like to cover, which advanced somewhat last week, is Bill C-205, which I introduced in order to enable mechanics to deduct the cost of their tools. The debate has gone on in this House for some ten years. It involves a job category, a category of employees, vehicle technicians, who earn on average $29,000 a year.
No doubt, Mr. Speaker, you have a car as I do and when you go to a service station or to a dealer's you can see how vehicle technicians, more commonly known as mechanics, are members of a category of employees that work very hard. Sometimes they have to work in very difficult conditions. Their work is very physically demanding. Most of the time they work on concrete floors, in high humidity areas, under vehicles from which water, oil and slush drip in their faces in the middle of winter. These people work in areas where oil, dust, noise and toxic fumes are the norm.
I tabled Bill C-205 because some people told me about this issue. Let me say from the outset that I am not an expert on automobiles. I am not a car buff. I have a hard time just putting oil in my car engine, but luckily I have a good mechanic who does it for me. Some colleagues have asked me “Why are you tabling this bill? Is your father or your brother a mechanic?” Not at all. It is simply a matter of common sense.
During an election campaign, or whenever we try to be receptive to people's concerns, we talk to ordinary people, to workers. We do not only talk to millionaires. On a typical day, a member of parliament is likely to meet many more hard-working, low-income people than he or she will meet millionaires or billionaires.
It is through these encounters that I was made aware of this issue. Workers in the automobile industry told me “It does not make sense; other categories of workers, including musicians, chainsaw operators and dentists, can deduct the cost of the tools required in their employment”.
This is why I tabled Bill C-205 which, incidentally, was voted on on Tuesday. I want to take this opportunity to thank hon. members and to congratulate them for doing so. There were 229 members in the House and 218 of them, from all parties, voted in favour of a bill introduced by a Bloc Quebecois member. I said from the outset that this was a bill that transcended party lines. This was not a debate between federalists and sovereignists; it was not a debate about Quebec versus the rest of Canada. It was simply a matter of common sense and fairness with respect to people whose work is physically very demanding.
I thank the 217 colleagues who voted with me to get this bill through second reading stage.
Mr. Speaker, you are a seasoned parliamentarian, as well as an expert in constitutional law. You know that a bill from a private member, an opposition member to boot, rarely makes it past second reading.
I deplore that 11 Liberal members voted against the bill, but they will have to live with their decision. Votes on private members' bills are free votes, with members voting according to their conscience.
When these 11 Liberal members are visiting service stations and automobile concessions during the next election campaign, I hope that they are given a polite reception by the mechanics, who work very hard in these establishments, but they will have to explain to these mechanics in person why they voted against my Bill C-205. They will have to live with their decision. That is not my problem.
This bill will have to be considered in the Standing Committee on Finance before it can come back to the House at third reading. I hope that the next election, which is expected this fall, will not kill this bill on the order paper. I hope that the government will give the bill top priority so that it can be passed before the next election.
The four year legal mandate is up on June 2, 2001. Last Friday it had only been three years since we were elected. Let us keep in mind that, in Canada, the legal, normal and usual mandate is four years and that, under the Canadian Constitution, up to five years are allowed before an election is called.
It is true that there is a tax cost related to this bill to allow mechanics to deduct the cost of their tools. It is true that this is going to cost the government money, but the Minister of Finance is bragging of having a $95 billion surplus over the next five years. I believe he has the financial and budgetary possibilities of accepting this bill, which would enable automobile mechanics to finally be recognized for their true value and to be allowed to deduct the cost of the tools required for their work.
Let us not forget that my purpose in tabling this bill was to help young men and women who are just finishing school. There are, unfortunately, not many young women working as mechanics but I believe that, as our society changes, it will be less and less a male-only trade, and we will see more and more girls choosing this profession.
Another purpose of this bill was to give young people the chance of getting a job. When a young person finishes school, he usual has debts because of his studies. He then goes to a car dealer or a garage looking for work and the boss is going to ask him, for a certainty, “Do you have your tools?”
We know that the most basic tool set runs between $3,000 and $5,000. There is no certainty that a young person just finishing school, with debts to begin with, is going to have that kind of money, and there is also no certainty that his parents will be in a position to help him either. Any set of tools that are the least bit specialized can run up to $30,000, $35,000 or $40,000.
The possibility of deducting the cost of tools would also be a recognition by this government of its desire to really give young people a chance and the opportunity to find work. I think the Minister of Finance ought to give some thought to this.
Another private member's bill I introduced, which may involve some financial commitment by the government, concerns employment insurance benefits. Over the years, the government has accumulated surpluses in the employment insurance fund.
We in the Bloc Quebecois contend that, since 1993, this surplus has not belonged to the government, but rather to the employees who contribute to employment insurance every week from their pay cheques and to their employers, who also pay employment insurance contributions, the employer's share.
We consider that the surplus of over $31 billion in the employment insurance fund—and I am sure that there is more than that today—belongs to the workers, and thus the unemployed, and to the employers. The employer's contribution to unemployment insurance should be reduced.
During the last break, I visited many businesses in the Beauport industrial park in my riding. People said to me “Mr. Guimond, we could create jobs if we could reduce certain payroll costs, employment insurance contributions, for example”.
When I took my degree in industrial relations, we talked about fringe benefits. Today, we call them benefits. Let me say in passing that these benefits are less and less fringe benefits, a name that is no longer acceptable. Now we talk about benefits.
Today, the employer pays between 30% and 35% of benefits. An employee hired today costs 35 cents for every dollar the employer pays in salary, even before he has worked.
Many SMB owners say “Lower the payroll taxes, lower the contributions to employment insurance, and we will create jobs”. This is all the more appropriate in the context of today's budget surplus of $31 billion.
This is why I introduced my private member's bill and I can hardly wait for it to be debated in this House. I can hardly wait to hear what all my colleagues from all parties on both sides of the House have to say on the matter. I want students excepted from having to pay employment insurance contributions, to have the option of not paying them.
When students do not work enough to qualify for employment insurance, why should they have to contribute if they hold a summer job? We currently have students here. They will begin to work soon, or they did at the end of April or in early May. These students will pay employment insurance contributions. In September, when they go back to school, they will not be able to get employment insurance benefits, because they will be full time students. Since they will not be able to look for full time work either, they will not qualify for employment insurance.
The bill I tabled is designed to allow these students, if they think that they will not work long enough to qualify for employment insurance or that they will have too many hours in class in September, to be exempted from having to contribute to the EI program. Such contributions are an indirect tax.
If these young people have more money available when they are working, it indirectly alleviates their parents' burden. If, instead of getting $195 net per week, a student takes home $210 or $212, he will have more money in his pockets and be more financially independent.
This in turn means that the parents will not have to shell out as much money for a bus pass or a pair of sneakers when classes resume in September. This is the reasoning behind the bill. I do hope that the government, which boasts about a $95.5 billion budget surplus over the next five years, will listen to the public, particularly since the Prime Minister plans to call an election soon.
My 40 minutes are running out quickly. I could have talked about the lack of measures in the February 28, 2000, budget to truly fight poverty. I cannot understand the Minister of Finance, who claims to sympathize with the poor and to understand them. Maybe that is true. Even though he has led a very sheltered life, even though we know he has a bank account big enough to buy out most members here, to buy us all out, he tells us he understands the poor.
Let us not forget that the Minister of Finance is the former president and owner of Canada Steamship Lines, one of the largest shipping companies. He is therefore a prosperous shipowner, a fellow with money coming out his ears, whose company, Canada Steamship Lines, registers its boats abroad in tax havens and does not hire many Canadian sailors so that it can pay the lowest wages possible.
The Minister of Finance says he understands the poor and is concerned about their situation. There must be poor people living in LaSalle, in his riding of Lasalle—Émard. Is there anyone listening who lives in LaSalle or Ville-Émard who thinks that their member of parliament, the Minister of Finance, is someone who understands and is in touch with the poor? Is he someone who makes a practice of visiting soup kitchens and meeting with the poor, the disadvantaged and those who beg for money in Montreal? Does he give them a quarter when he takes a walk along rue Sainte-Catherine? Does this describe the Minister of Finance? No. He is insensitive.
The best proof is that his February 28, 2000 budget contained nothing for the poor. He tried to throw together a few little programs to once again boost this government's visibility. This government has an obsession with visibility. It wants to put the maple leaf everywhere. It even put it on the front of Via Rail trains. I do not know how many thousands of dollars it cost taxpayers to put a maple leaf on the front of Via Rail trains so that moose, caribou and deer watching the train go through the Gaspé park toward the town can be sure that it is really a federal government train. Just to be sure, a maple leaf was added to the front of Via Rail trains. This government has an obsession with visibility.
I believe that, if this government has any sensitivity to the needs of the people of Canada and of Quebec, it should think twice and ensure that there are measures to allow the ordinary people, the members of the middle class, the hard working people who punch the clock in factories and other businesses, those who are supervised by others, those who do not make enough to make ends meet, those who are worried about losing their jobs, those whose have children in Cegep who want to be like everyone else and have things like everyone else, a bike for instance, to be able to benefit from concrete taxation measures.
This is today's reality. Canadian and Quebec society is made up of several different categories of people. I think it is regrettable that this government pays more attention to the powerful. When we realize that the six biggest banks in Canada have recorded a profit of $8 billion in 1999, can this government be one that listens to those who have little? Can we believe that this government is one that listens to the middle class, when we see the six major banks making $8 billion in profits?
While the big banks like Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Toronto Dominion are announcing record profits for 1999—they have never made so much money—2,500 jobs are being cut, branches are being closed, there is no more service. People are being told to use the automatic teller, which will cut down on the number of counter staff needed.
In the branches, the tellers are being forced to tell us “Use the automatic tellers. There is no charge for it”. That is what they are being made to do. I said so the other day to my teller at the National Bank. I said “Do you realize you are working to do yourself out of a job? You encourage me to pay my hydro bill at the banking machine in order to save $1.25. You are doing yourself out of a job”. She said “Mr. Guimond, we have been instructed to direct our clients to the banking machine”.
Can we say we are in a better, more developed, society when we just do business with banking machines? What about humanity's place in society? Where will humans be taken into account once and for all? When are we, as members, going to take those who sent us here into account? They are the public.
This fall we may be going back to the people. What do they expect of us? We must represent them worthily and listen to their needs and concerns.
I hope that the 301 members of the House of Commons will be motivated by one thing, not greed, not power or latching on to it, but the defence honestly and to the best of their ability of the people they represent.