Madam Speaker, I am happy to join the debate on the report of the standing committee and their prebudget consultations.
It is useful for us to have a good look at this report, which was tabled on November 26, and compare it to what actually came out in the budget. I think we will find some glaring contrasts or at least some glaring omissions. I do not believe what came out in the budget accurately reflects what the standing committee heard. In other words, what Canadians told the committee did not find its way into the budget that was tabled on December 10.
It is true, as the report says in its executive summary, that this report jells down to five key priorities. However, those five key priorities are not the same five key priorities that the standing committee heard in its five weeks of prebudget consultations. It is disingenuous to try to say, for instance, that one of the key five points the standing committee claims it heard was an increased call for tax cuts and the need to maintain the $100 billion tax cut regime that was introduced last year.
In actual fact, when we looked at the representations made to the committee, we saw that virtually no one went there asking for tax cuts and deficit reduction. This was not the top issue on the minds of most Canadians who made presentations to that committee. To list the $100 billion tax cut program as one of the five key top of the mind issues of all Canadians on the very opening page of the report from the committee is simply not true or accurate as to what actually was heard.
Points were raised over and over again, by groups of Canadians who came to the prebudget consultations. There was an almost unanimous theme across the country. Those issues are not addressed in the budget. A key and paramount issue that I would like to raise first among those is the EI program.
Today, speakers from the opposition benches at least have pointed out the shortcomings of the EI program as it exists today. I would like to bring it down to the context of the riding that I represent, which is a very low income riding. In fact, it is the third poorest riding in Canada by whatever measurement is used.
The impact of the changes to EI, when the government switched to the hourly basis rather than the weekly basis to qualify, has been nothing short of devastating. By dollar figure, $20.8 million per year less in benefits now comes into my riding than under the old eligibility rules. This may not seem like an overwhelming amount of money to some people who are used to dealing with large figures, but it is a visible and tangible difference in the riding I represent.
Perhaps it would be easier to put it in the context of what a $20.8 million payroll would do to a riding. For instance, if we were trying to lure some new company into the riding that had a $20 million a year payroll, we would pave the streets with gold to bring that company in. It would employ a lot of people and it would be an injection of a lot of capital into the small area of the downtown core of Winnipeg.
Taking $20 million from my riding, where people are already living on fairly modest means, some who are very marginalized and are unemployed, has a very tangible social and economic impact on the riding. We are very critical that nothing has been said in this budget about lightening up the eligibility rules so that more people will qualify and it will become an unemployment insurance program again as it was designed to be.
The member for Drummond pointed out a very real fact of which we should be very aware. The federal government does not put one cent into the EI fund. It stopped doing that in 1986. Formerly it was funded roughly one-third, one-third, one-third; employer, employee and the federal government. The federal government pulled out its share. Now that entire fund and the surplus therein is contributions from employers and employees and no one else.
We have used this analogy before, but to deduct money from a person's paycheque for a specific purpose and then to use the money for something completely different is at the very least a breach of trust. In the worst light it is out and out fraud.
A worker has a reasonable expectation. There is a trust relationship that develops. When the government is holding my money to give me a benefit it has promised me and then I am unlucky enough to find myself unemployed, I have a less than 40% chance of receiving any benefit whatsoever. The government has clearly misled workers in the EI program.
This one thing would have made a huge difference in the riding I represent. Let us keep in mind that the $40 billion surplus in the EI fund represents a surplus of $750 million a month. That is what this cash cow is generating for the Liberal government. The modest increases in spending in the budget are really the EI surplus. Without it the government would not have the discretionary spending it has. It would not have been able to give tax cuts.
It is unbelievably perverse to take money from people who need it the most, unemployed Canadians, and give a tax cut to people lucky enough to have a job and an income. It is a reverse form of Robin Hood. It is robbing the poor to give to the rich.
That is my first observation when looking at the report of the standing committee in its prebudget consultations. It failed to listen to the almost unanimous view it must have heard in every community it visited that we must do something to fix the EI fund.
I have a second point that I will bring into the context of my own riding. It is helpful to break down a large abstract document such as the federal budget into the ramifications of how it affects ordinary Canadians.
My riding is in a low income neighbourhood. Persons with disabilities are often low income people. A disproportionate number of disabled people live in my riding in the core area of Winnipeg, given the population of Winnipeg overall. It has come to our attention recently that every disabled person who gets the disability tax credit received a letter in the mail demanding that they requalify for the tax credit.
No matter what their disability is or how permanently disabled they are these people are being forced to go to a doctor. They must pay for the exam because doctors do not do this type of exam under the Canada health plan. The exam costs as much as $135 and they must pay upfront. They must get a written letter which says that the person is disabled to the degree that he or she should qualify for the disability tax credit.
How meanspirited can the government be? In an era of budget surpluses it chooses 90,000 or 100,000 disabled Canadians across the country and forces them to requalify to prove they are disabled. The status of many of them such as people who are legally blind will not change. It is something they must live with. They deserve the disability tax credit.
I find this offensive. On behalf of the many disabled people in my community who have brought the issue to my attention I condemn the practice. I want that on the record.
There is another thing that could have been addressed in the budget and which upsets those of us who represent low income areas. The point was raised very capably by my colleague from the Bloc Quebecois that a great number of seniors who collect old age security pensions are at income levels low enough that they also qualify for the guaranteed income supplement. However, literally hundreds of thousands of Canadians who qualify for the guaranteed income supplement have never applied for it and are not getting it.
It is their money. They are arguably the poorest of the poor. To be eligible for the guaranteed income supplement one must be a very low income person on literally the lowest socioeconomic rung of the ladder. The federal government knows who these people are because they are identified when they file their income tax.
In other words, Revenue Canada knows who they are and HRDC is the department that could and should be issuing their guaranteed income supplement cheques. Why do the two agencies not talk to each other? Why does Revenue Canada not tell HRDC there are 100,000 to 200,000 Canadians who deserve the guaranteed income supplement but are not getting it? Why does it not tell HRDC to give it to them?
We should not put the onus on these people to apply. For many reasons they sometimes do not. Some elderly people may not fill out the forms correctly or even know the benefit is available to them. I understand there are as many as 270,000 Canadians in this situation.
Let us look at the number of reasons. It could be an issue of basic literacy. It could be a lack of command of either of the official languages if they are new Canadians. It could be mental competency. There could be any number of reasons elderly seniors either do not know about the program or do not know how to fill out the forms and fail to qualify. It could make a difference of $5,000 per year.
That is 270,000 Canadians times $5,000 per year. Being a low income riding, my riding has a disproportionate number of low income seniors because they seek the lower rents in the area. I estimate that as many as 8,000 or 9,000 of those 270,000 people from around the country are living in the riding of Winnipeg Centre in the downtown core of Winnipeg. If I do a bit of quick mathematics and multiply 9,000 times $5,000 per year, that is $45 million worth of federal money that would be injected into my low income riding of Winnipeg Centre overnight.
Let us imagine the difference this would make to the social and cultural fabric of the community I live in. Yet it is being withheld. This is the kind of thing that makes me absolutely furious. It is along the same lines as the miserliness that has been demonstrated by the disability letters and making people requalify. It is an issue we will not let relax.
My mathematics were wrong. It would be more than a $45 million injection of capital into my riding. It would be an injection of $54 million per year into my riding to help the poorest of the poor. People who make maybe $12,000 or $14,000 a year from their OAS or from all other sources of income would get another $5,000 per year. It might make the difference between abject poverty and a reasonable quality of life for those people.
I have church groups in my riding. I compliment the Home Street Mennonite Church in my riding of Winnipeg Centre which is conducting a mass letter writing campaign to do two things: first, remind the minister how fundamentally wrong the path is that she is taking; and, second, seek out and find seniors in the community who may be eligible for the guaranteed income supplement and have not taken active steps.
It will be like the old voter registration campaign in Selma, Alabama, in the sixties. Bands of well meaning people will be going through low income apartment blocks to find seniors, let them know they may qualify for the program and help them fill out the forms. If the seniors do not have a family member to fill out the forms the fine people from the Home Street Mennonite Church will. It is to their credit.
Another thing that came up during prebudget consultations, more as a lobby or to register dissatisfaction, was that the public service unions were still furious that in the last parliament the government passed legislation which gave it the legal right to take the $30 billion surplus in the public service pension plan.
Of the $100 billion tax cut which shows up in prebudget consultations as one of the five priorities and shows up in the budget as a continuation of the five year $100 billion tax break, $30 billion was taken out of the public service employee pension plan. Incredibly the government got away with this. It was Marcel Massé's last move. It was the task he was given on his way out. I think I can use the name of the former president of the treasury board now that he is no longer a member of the House of Commons.
This was atrocious. It is an indication of where the government found the surplus it is bragging about and giving back in the form of tax cuts to the wealthy.
Employment insurance has a $40 billion surplus. The government happened to find $30 billion laying around in the public service pension plan. Rather than share it with employees the government took 100% of it. It did not even sit down to negotiate a fair split or offer to increase the monthly income of beneficiaries. There was none of that. The government took every penny of it.
The guaranteed income supplement that should be going to seniors is still sitting in the coffers of the federal government. It should be put into circulation. Then we would see some economic stimulus. Then we would see the riding of Winnipeg Centre with the two things I outlined: first, changes to EI to restore the $20 million a year we used to get in EI benefits; and, second, the $54 million we have forfeited or do not enjoy because of the government's deliberate and wilful blindness to the fact that senior citizens who qualify for the guaranteed income supplement are not getting it.
Being from the prairies it would be negligent of me not to raise another shortfall in the budget: the absolute dearth of anything concrete to deal with the agricultural crisis on the prairies. There was a lot of hope and optimism on the part of people in the prairie agriculture community that the budget would be the time to do something about the emergency prairie farmers are facing.
Some 11,000 prairie farmers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta left the family farm last year alone. They finally gave up. They kept farming until it was all gone and they could not farm any more. They have had to leave the family farm.
When the east coast fishery was in crisis years ago I was one of those who wondered if we really had to pour billions of dollars into it. We had our own problems on the prairies. However people came to me from the Atlantic provinces and asked how I would feel if the bottom fell out of our key industry, the whole family farm agricultural industry on the prairies. Would I not want the federal government to do something to help the basic economic fabric?
In that context they were right. I would expect the government to intervene on a sectoral basis and do something about it. I can therefore see why it was so devastating to lose the east coast fishery. It justified all the programs, TAGS, et cetera, that went into it.
The same is now happening on the prairies. It has happened. It is an emergency, just as it was an emergency with the east coast fishery. We are coming to the federal government looking for real support to save the agricultural economy on the prairies.
I am trying to keep my remarks pointed to my own riding because, as I say, it is helpful to render down such an abstract concept to practical implications. I will do so.
In my riding of Winnipeg Centre the largest growing demographic group is the aboriginal community. People are flocking into downtown Winnipeg looking for a better life. They are coming in from reserves with a great sense of hope and optimism that there will be a better quality of life for them.
To this point it has been a tragic story. Even as the Indian Act is 130 years of social tragedy there is a new social tragedy emerging among the urban aboriginal population in cities like Vancouver, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton and elsewhere across the west. I do not know a lot about eastern Canada but it may apply there too.
The Speech from the Throne gave hope and optimism to the aboriginal community that this would be the era in which we finally redress some of the historic injustices that have resulted in the tragic statistics we see today. By statistics I mean the ridiculous overrepresentation of aboriginal people in our jails, a social indicator that something is horribly and fundamentally wrong with our relationship and dealings with aboriginal communities.
Another startling figure is that although Canada ranks number three on the human development index of the United Nations, aboriginal people are number 63 on the same index. To have that kind of range within one country shows we are not trying hard enough.
We were disappointed again. The aboriginal community was looking forward with great optimism to the budget. The aboriginal leadership and on reserve and off reserve peoples thought this would be the year they would finally be welcomed into the mainstream of the Canadian economy. What we saw was a small gesture toward specific problems. Fetal alcohol syndrome is important, but $185 million over two years is not enough. It falls way short of the work that needs to be done.
I need only point out the water conditions in northern aboriginal communities in Manitoba. Fully one-third of them has no source of potable freshwater. When people died in Walkerton it was a national emergency and a national tragedy. This goes on every day in communities all over northern Manitoba. Yet we do not have the money to address the issue.
The last thing I will mention is the $2 billion fund for the strategic infrastructure foundation. The premier of Manitoba was quoted in the newspaper today as saying he had never seen an infrastructure program, supposed to stimulate the economy, which kicks in only when the economy is in surplus.
What a contradiction. Exactly when we do not need an economic stimulus package is when we are in economic surplus. The only time we are going to be able to access the $2 billion for the rapid transit we need or for the Red River floodway work we need is when the government shows a surplus. It is not projecting a surplus next year adequate enough for the infrastructure program to be accessible to my home province of Manitoba.
It is a real illusion, a shell game, to say that there is a $2 billion foundation which will be reinvested in infrastructure across the country but only when times are so good that we do not need it. We do not need economic stimulation when we are in a surplus situation. We need it now when we are looking at a slow economic period.