House of Commons Hansard #12 of the 37th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was farmers.


PrivilegeGovernment Orders

11:40 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

John Williams Canadian Alliance St. Albert, AB

Mr. Speaker, I just want to say that freedom of speech is a very important thing in the House and debate on serious issues such as this should not be cut off.

I totally disagree with the government House leader who said that this is not a point of privilege. We are not just talking about freedom of speech, we are talking about the freedom to speak, and there is a big difference. Not only is the freedom to speak very important in this House, but it is something that was fought for and won at great cost over hundreds of years.

We have talked about the Westminster precedents. It was over there that these battles were fought and won for the right to speak. This debate should not be cut off. The government should listen to every member of this House who wants to speak to a bill.

We have had closure today, and we all know the debate has been around that, but the closure has meant the denial of the right to speak. When we lose that we might as well all just go right back home because it means nothing if we cannot speak in this House where our privileges are protected, and they are protected by you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, you are not the chairman of the House, you are the Speaker of the House, which means that you speak for the members as they argue against the government. I am sure you are aware of the historical record of how the Speaker had to fight to speak on behalf of the ordinary members and stand up against the government. It may have been the crown and the monarch in days gone past, but now we have the government sitting right in the House. It is your job to stand up for the members against the government. We may have government members sitting in the House but it is the government that tried to deny members the right to speak. That cannot be denied.

I want to make one final point. We had this debate about a year ago. It was last March I believe when the government was consistently moving to orders of the day in order to bypass routine proceedings. I believe our House leader referred to that point when Speaker Fraser ruled that we could not move to orders of the day. Last year when we challenged the government's right, it withdrew the motion to move to orders of the day.

Therefore I say to you, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of all members in the House, that you have an obligation to stand on our behalf and say that we have a right to speak and the government has a right and an obligation to listen.

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11:45 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

As I stated earlier, the question of privilege before the House is a very serious matter. I have ruled that I will take this matter under advisement.

If there are other points of order the Chair will receive them, but the question of privilege is under advisement.

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11:45 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Leon Benoit Canadian Alliance Lakeland, AB

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. In his presentation the Conservative House leader read from a document which had been prepared by the government House leader back in 1993. I would ask that document be tabled.

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11:45 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

That document could be tabled by consent. Is there consent?

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11:45 a.m.

Some hon. members


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11:45 a.m.

Some hon. members


The House resumed from February 12 consideration of the motion that Bill C-2, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and the Employment Insurance (Fishing) Regulations, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

February 13th, 2001 / 11:45 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Peter MacKay Progressive Conservative Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, NS

Mr. Speaker, I will continue my remarks from yesterday evening. It is important that all Canadians acknowledge and realize that this system pertains nationwide. It is not limited or directed to any one region of the country.

The problems that exist in the system currently could very much be improved if the government took the time to listen to seasonal workers and to its own employees who handle EI problems in places such as the maritimes. They have suggested on more than one occasion that one method of improving the system and improving the method of determining EI benefits over a pay period would be to have it scrapped and replaced with a system of declaring hours worked on a weekly basis. If people do not work during a certain week they do not declare the particular week.

It is obvious that the EI system has major inadequacies that are placing Canadians who need help into tremendous debt. I have written personally to the current minister and the previous minister on a number of occasions, and I have not had the pleasure of a response, sadly.

On the issue of undeclared earnings, I wrote the HRDC minister over two years ago but have not received a response. Even then public concern over the inequity was growing. I have subsequently written again and the minister has not responded.

The Conservative Party is generally supportive of Bill C-2, but our support is conditional on the bill going before the committee so there will be further analysis and hopefully the opportunity to put forward amendments and changes, if necessary.

We are supportive to the extent that the bill will remove the existing intensity clause and will be committed to fixing the so-called repeater's rule which made it virtually impossible for a woman to receive employment insurance if she left a job to have a second child. However the Conservative Party does not support the government's refusal to deal with artificially high EI premium rates.

We would welcome the opportunity at committee to enact some of the changes we proposed and put forward during the recent federal election. Those included support for the continuation of an independent employment insurance commission and its role in recommending sustainable EI premiums.

The current legislation would give cabinet the power to set premiums for 2002 and 2003, which actually gives the government a further year to study the premium setting. This was the case with the previous Bill C-44. The thought of having this provision removed from the independent body and handed to the cabinet and the finance minister is unacceptable.

Other groups, such as the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, have spoken out against the move. The Conservative Party supports the CRFA and its opposition to the Liberals' approach, which is seen as very paternalistic and a manoeuvre that would create more problems than it would address.

We are also committed as a party to the investigation, with the employment insurance commission, of a proposal that would move toward the establishment of an individual EI account and an EI rebate program that would enable workers to roll a portion of their EI contributions into an RRSP upon retirement.

There is no reason why EI rates are so high. At the end of last year the EI account had a cumulative surplus of over $35 billion. The $2.25 employee premium rate will drive the cumulative EI surplus above the $40 billion mark by the end of 2001.

The recent auditor general's report blasts the government for the way in which it has handled the account. The auditor general rightly points out that the EI surplus is well over twice the maximum amount that the chief actuary of HRDC considers sufficient as a reserve for the account. This is because of the unnecessarily high premiums that the government refuses to significantly reduce.

As seasonal workers in Atlantic Canada and across the nation suffer from the Liberal cash grab, it becomes very frustrating for a member of parliament who represents an area with many seasonal workers and high unemployment, such as Guysborough. There is great frustration among those workers and employers when premiums should and could be reduced to the $1.90 mark from the current level of $2.25.

There is ample opportunity for the government to correct the inadequacies in the bill. We look forward to the opportunity at committee to bring forward amendments that would improve the legislation.

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11:50 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ken Epp Canadian Alliance Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to enter the debate on employment insurance revisions. Before I do that, I want to make a few comments about the unconscionable action of the government in invoking time allocation today.

It used to be that governments invoked closure, which basically said that the House did not adjourn until the debate collapsed. Those were days when the House would sit right through the night and debate continuously until there were no members left to speak.

Time allocation is even worse than that because it does not even allow members to stay until midnight or two or four in the morning to speak. It says that at 6.15 p.m. today we are done. I think it is unconscionable of the government to say that we may not even express our views after a certain point.

I am very fortunate that I am designated now to give a 10 minute speech, so I am able to express my views. What about all the other members who want to speak on behalf of their constituents on this very important bill? They literally are not allowed to do so because of the government's action in passing the motion a few minutes ago.

Furthermore, it is very sad that all the members on that side automatically vote for a bill such as this one, when on this side we would very happily vote against time allocation or closure. However, on that side a sudden transformation seems to take place. They somehow deposit their brains at the door and become stone statues. They no longer use their own heads. They just do as they are told.

I know a certain degree of respectability is required in parliament. We sometimes need to submit to each other. A husband and wife do not get along unless they do that. We have a certain degree of that in the House. However, it has to be wrong when members blindly follow orders with which they do not agree.

I am very surprised that Liberal members do not have the fortitude to stand on their own and say what they will do. We will probably see the same thing tonight when members will all vote against their own election platform of 1993.

Parliament is being eroded. I am beginning to think that perhaps my colleague from the previous parliament, Lee Morrison, had it right when he said that this place really was a waste of time because of all the restrictions and controls put on it by the government.

I regret that Canadians did not see through this and that Ontarians, because of all the misinformation, were once again persuaded to elect Liberal candidates instead of voting for what is right: a parliament that actually works on behalf of Canadians.

In order to actually use my time I will say a few things about Bill C-2, the amendments to the Employment Insurance Act. A number of issues are very important to Canadians, and one of the most important is that the rules should be the same for everyone across the country.

I know one can say that in areas of high employment it is tough to get a job, and that EI benefits in such areas should therefore be increased or extended. That is a reality. However, right now there is a problem of greater magnitude on the prairies with respect to farmers.

When we lose our job we lose our income. Without income we cannot provide for our families. We have great sympathy for people who lose their jobs or who are in seasonal work. However, there are also farmers in seasonal work who have now lost their income because of the inaction of this government.

Input costs for farmers exceed what they are able to get for the sale of their products. Consequently their incomes have gone to zero or negative. Is there any help from the government for farmers? Not that we can see. Big, heady announcements have been made but nothing has been delivered.

What we get are farmers having to pay their accountants $500 or $600 to do the bookwork to determine whether they are eligible. When farmers do submit their applications they get back $5 or $10 because that is all they qualify for, and a bill from their accountant.

It is absolutely absurd that the government cannot solve a problem.

The government recently gave out $1.3 billion in energy rebate cheques to Canadians, 90% of whom probably did not pay heating bills. The government says that the rebate was meant to compensate Canadians with high heating costs. However, the government has totally mismanaged it. It is really a $1.3 billion boondoggle in the sense that the rebates went to people completely off the target. The government totally missed the mark.

The Employment Insurance Act also has a problem in reaching its target. Frankly, if someone loses his or her job it does not matter whether 10 or 100 of his or her neighbours have lost their job. It is a very personal thing. The person is saying that he or she has lost his or her job and income. It should not matter whether they live in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick or Newfoundland, if people pay into EI and lose their job they should receive benefits until they get another job.

We use the word insurance, so let us talk about insurance. What if my house burned down and my insurance company said that because not too many houses burned down in my area this year it would not pay me? Insurance companies do not base their decisions on that. If there is an area where a lot of houses are being destroyed by fire they will probably look at it and see what they can do in the area of prevention. This is another area in which the government has totally dropped the ball. To get people off unemployment they have to have jobs. Has the government done anything other than make big announcements, especially during an election campaign, about some teeny-weeny tax cuts, instead of some substantial tax cuts and policies that would encourage businesses not only to stay here but to establish here and to create new employment? No, it has not.

The unemployment rate is now going up and our economy is in the doldrums. Why? It is because of the total failure of the government to provide policies that would make our country excessively strong in the world economy. We are hangers on with a weak dollar. That is the only thing that seems to be an advantage for Canadians right now because all of us are being asked to take a 30% cut in our earnings in order to sell our products around the world. That is helping but what a price we are paying for that. It is not a long term solution.

There are a lot of things wrong with the EI bill. One of the other things that comes to my mind is the total unfairness of the employment insurance rate structure. I know the rates have gingerly come down and the Liberals will crow about this.

The surplus in the EI fund is $25 billion, now possibly $30 billion in terms of the actuarial value. The present act says that the chief actuary should give advice. At the present time the surplus in the EI fund is double what it needs to be, yet the government keeps collecting huge amounts of money from employers and employees. In fact, it is collecting 40% more from employers than from employees. No wonder these people do not have any money to invest and to hire more people. That is the crux of the matter.

What does this bill do? It takes away the actuarial requirement and simply gives the rate setting structure as a new power to the minister. No wonder we are upset about this bill. No wonder we want to talk about it and change it. I wish the government would be willing to do that.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders



Murray Calder Liberal Dufferin—Peel—Wellington—Grey, ON

Madam Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this very important piece of legislation. This bill illustrates once again the progressive agenda of the government.

The agenda was set with foresight in the beginning and has been followed consistently ever since. This is an agenda that was vindicated by Canadians in the last election. The critics of the government claim that the contents of Bill C-2 represent backtracking on the reforms introduced in 1996. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If members will recall, it was generally agreed during the early days of this government that the unemployment insurance scheme had to be replaced. Everybody agreed to that. After much consultation with Canadians and despite the outraged cries of the opposition, the government brought in a program to replace the old regime with the employment insurance program.

The new plan was designed to be sustainable, to be fair, to encourage work, to reduce dependency on benefits and to assist those in need and help workers get back to work and stay at work. These goals are being achieved by the employment insurance program.

The program was implemented with the knowledge that being new it would not necessarily be perfect. We knew that time would show up areas requiring improvement. The legislation allowed for a period of continuous monitoring and assessment of the program to measure its impact on people, communities and the economy.

This is not the first time adjustments to the EI regime have proven necessary. The government acted quickly in 1997 to launch the small weeks pilot project in order to correct a disincentive for some people to work weeks with low incomes. Our studies and discussions with Canadians have shown us that while many parts of the EI program are working well, there are some provisions that have proven ineffective or in some cases, punitive, particularly toward seasonal workers.

We have always had and always will have seasonal industries in Canada. These industries are in fact vital to our economic well-being. Because these industries by definition employ people for only part of the year, we must ensure that our economic and social programs include these workers.

While EI aims at helping all unemployed workers, we also have to recognize that some groups, such as seasonal workers, have particular needs and that the program does indeed have special features built in to benefit seasonal workers. The hours based system, for example, takes into account the fact that seasonal work often includes long hours of work over a short number of weeks. As a farmer I can attest to that.

As I have mentioned, one of the intentions of the EI program is to reduce dependence on benefits by all Canadian workers, including of course seasonal workers. The so-called intensity rule was therefore introduced to discourage the repeat use of EI benefits by reducing the benefit rate of frequent claimants. It was designed to encourage people to take work.

However, we have gone through a period of unprecedented economic growth and not all Canadians have benefited equally. Seasonal workers tend to be among those whose fortunes have not improved in step with the overall economy. Some regions still experience double digit unemployment rates. This is reflected in our monitoring and assessment reports. They indicate that the proportion of benefits paid out to frequent claimants has remained stable at around 40% since the introduction of the intensity rule.

The unavoidable fact is that many seasonal workers may have little choice but to resort to EI benefits. There simply may not be enough job opportunities available to them in the off season. In other words, what was intended as a disincentive to rely on benefits has become a punitive measure where there are few alternatives available. That is why Bill C-2 proposes the removal of the intensity rule.

Meanwhile, to provide a real solution to workers in these circumstances, the EI program retains one of its most important provisions, the active measures under part II, the employment benefit support measures.

Using these instruments, the government will continue to work with the provinces and the territories and at the local level to develop long term solutions that will diversify local economies and make them self-supporting in providing jobs. The long term solutions require a concerted effort by all levels of government, businesses, community leaders and other Canadians to develop effective measures.

We need measures to ensure that the necessary education and training opportunities are there for the workers in the seasonal industries. We need measures to promote economic diversity in communities that rely on seasonal work. We need measures to build the capacity of communities to become economically self-sustaining. The government continues and will continue to work in partnership with all Canadians to ensure that these measures are developed and put in place. That is our commitment.

In the meantime, we should not forget that the new EI system introduced in 1996 and subsequently improved remains effective, equitable and responsible. The hours based eligibility system provides access to benefits to people who were not previously covered, including some seasonal workers and part time workers.

The first dollar coverage introduced by EI has removed the incentive for employers to limit part time work in order to avoid paying premiums. The changes contemplated in Bill C-2 will improve the plan even further, helping to ensure fairness and to serve the interests of Canadians in the labour market.

The EI reforms of 1996 represented the most fundamental restructuring of the unemployment insurance scheme in 25 years. While debating the proposed areas of adjustment, we should bear in mind that the core elements of EI are being maintained because they work. I want to stress that. Why throw something out when we know it works. That does not mean that the program is fixed in amber.

The government will continue to monitor and assess employment insurance and make changes if it becomes apparent. It is just being flexible and that is what the government has always been all about.

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12:10 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Rick Casson Canadian Alliance Lethbridge, AB

Madam Speaker, this is my first opportunity to rise in the House since the House resumed sitting. I would like to congratulate you on your position and certainly the other Speakers. I also would like to thank the people back home who worked so hard to send me back here.

I suppose that is what we are talking about, the people who worked so hard to send us to represent them in the House of Commons, yet we are now debating Bill C-2 under the restraints of closure.

Before the motion on closure was brought in on the bill this morning, another motion was brought to us, as members of parliament, to accept a committee report without debate. We find that wrong. It does not give us the proper opportunity to represent our constituents' wishes.

People who believe in us have worked hard to send us here. They support our beliefs and principles. We are all here for that reason. However, we may have different ideas and philosophies on how those things should be done. They support what we believe in and they send us here to project and support their beliefs and our beliefs.

It is with a great deal of distress that we continue to have the motions of closure. This is the 69th time since 1993 that the government has used closure. It is wrong because it limits the opportunity of members of parliament, duly elected to represent their constituents, to voice their opinions.

The member for Fraser Valley, the House leader for the opposition, in his question of privilege really brought a lot of these points to bear. We need to change things in the House somewhat so we can better reflect the concerns of the people who elected us. To a certain degree, the actions of closure really put us in a position of not being able to do that.

After we complete debate Bill C-2 in the House today, it will go to committee when the committees are struck. I think Canadians need to know that the committees are all weighted in favour of the government as well.

Regarding the report that was tabled this morning from a committee, the government used its majority on that committee to defeat a motion that would have allowed committee members to elect a chairman of the committee by secret ballot. It is a small thing but it would mean a great deal to put some credibility at the committee level. However, it was voted down by the government's majority.

When we finish with the bill at this stage, it will go to committee. Will the government allow meaningful debate at the committee level? Will it take meaningful suggestions? Will it allow amendments? Will it just use its power again as majority at the committee level to override anything that comes through?

We have seen it before. I sat through the committee process on the discussions of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. There were many amendments and hours and hours of meetings. In the end the government brought in its members who were used as voting machines. They were completely unaware of what the issues were. They were completely unaware of the debate that had taken place. They were completely unaware of the amendments that they would be voting on. They were nodded at when it was time for them to stand and vote. That is wrong.

People who are making these decisions should at least be aware of the issues. To see members whipped into line, to come to committee and vote on a policy that they have no idea about is wrong.

With regard to these issues of closure, parliamentary reform, the whole idea of committee involvement, and bringing back some responsibility to us as members of the House of Commons, it is not only our party, the official opposition, that is pushing them. It is everyone. People in all roles, on the front bench, on the back bench and on the government side, have passed comments on our ineffectiveness as parliamentarians, on how our ability to cause change has been eroded. It is not a single party issue but an issue for all parties.

The Leader of the Opposition has stated that Canadians are justly proud of our heritage of responsible government, but our parliamentary democracy is not all that it should be. Too much power is exercised by the Prime Minister instead of being shared by our elected representatives. That really gets to the crux of the matter. An excess of party discipline stifles open discussion and debate, and grassroots citizens and community groups feel that their opinions are not being respected or heard.

That gets to the real point of the discussion today. What we are hearing from our constituents is not coming up through us and getting to the House because debate is being limited and committees are being structured in such a way that meaningful change cannot happen.

The member for Toronto—Danforth, a member for whom I have a lot of respect, hosted an event in Toronto last year to support farmers from across the country. I respect him for doing that. To do that in downtown Toronto and to have it come off as such a success was a good thing. It brought some attention to the issue at hand. Not much change has happened since then, but I appreciate what he did there. He has stated that parliament does not work, that it is broken, that it is like a car motor that is working on two cylinders.

Let us fire up the rest of those cylinders. Let us make this parliament work effectively and strongly. Let us put all the horsepower behind it that we can. Let us give ourselves as members of parliament the right and the ability to voice our opinions.

The Liberal member for Lac-Saint-Louis, formerly a Quebec cabinet minister, is another person I sat with on the environment committee and is somebody for whom I have a great deal of respect. He stated that being on the backbench they are typecast as if they are all stupid and are just supposed to be voting machines.

Recent statements made by the Prime Minister while in China indicate that this is how he feels about his own backbenchers, never mind other members of the House. He feels that they are voting machines, that they will stand and be counted whenever he tells them to.

Progressive Conservative Party members have not been left out of this. They put forward in their last election platform that we must reassert the power of the individual member of parliament to effectively represent the interests of constituents and play a meaningful role in the development of public policy.

We have to bring back into the House and into the hands of the democratically elected members of parliament the ability to effect policy. We cannot leave it entirely in the hands of bureaucrats. I know the bureaucrats have a function, but certainly their function should be to support what members of parliament want and what they are putting forward.

The NDP House leader has been a champion of parliamentary reform. He takes every opportunity to bring up the subject and have it debated. Even today, in response to the question of privilege by the official opposition House leader, he again brought up point after point with regard to what needs to be done to bring back some power to MPs.

Here is a quote from the front row, from the finance minister. He finished a statement by saying that MPs must have the opportunity to truly represent both their conscience and their constituents. I like that statement because it pretty much comes out of one of the policies and principles of this party, which is that we vote as our constituents wish and we vote our conscience.

The idea that we cannot do that is hard for people to believe. Let us look at the alienation in parts of the country where people feel they are not being brought into the mix, into the debate. They feel powerless. There are simple things that could be done to bring back the feeling people need to have, which is that they are part of the process and when they cast their votes it means something.

The fact that the number of people voting in federal elections in Canada is dropping is a crime in itself. Why are people not engaged in the debate? Why do they not feel that their votes count for something? We have seen in the United States how much every vote does count. I think it is a fact that Canadians feel that whatever the average guy on the street says or wants does not make any difference.

Why would anyone elected to serve their constituents not back changes to make the House more relevant? We need free votes in the House of Commons. As members of parliament, we must have the ability to vote as our constituents wish us to. I wish I had more time to speak. There are so many things we could do, but when we are debating Bill C-2, amendments to the Employment Insurance Act, under a motion for closure, it just emphasizes what is wrong with our system.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.


Lynn Myers Liberal Waterloo—Wellington, ON

Madam Speaker, I very much appreciate the time to talk about these very important EI changes before us today and about the certainly very concrete steps that the Government of Canada, this side of the House, is proposing in this very important area.

Before I do, I want to somewhat address the crocodile tears we hear from the members opposite when it comes to closure or time allocation. Especially galling, I think, are the reformed Alliance people. It was not so long ago that the Leader of the Opposition was a member of the Alberta cabinet and the Alberta government. When the government sat, which is, as we know, very rare in Alberta, he brought in time allocation and closure on all kinds of measures, including the restricting of seniors, the shutting down of kindergartens, and of course the infamous bill 11. So this is really hard to take, from the people opposite especially, who say one thing and propose to do quite another. If anyone is the king of closure when it comes to those matters, it is the Leader of the Opposition.

However, that is typical. I listened intently to the member who spoke before me. I recall that in 1993 and again in 1997 a Reform Party member of parliament took a poll of his constituents on gun control. Guess what he found out? He found out that his constituents actually liked what the Government of Canada was proposing on gun control. Did he vote accordingly? No, of course he did not, so again it was “say one thing and do another”.

I could go on: Stornoway; the use of cars; the member for Edmonton North, her pension and the pigs on the lawn; the member for Medicine Hat and his pension; paying Jim Hart $50,000 to give up his seat. I could go on about the $800,000. Oh, we are so fiscally responsible, says he, yet he is so willing to spend $800,000 when it comes to taxpayers' money.

It becomes a little galling after a while to have to listen to those reformed Alliance people opposite who are so good in their overzealous way of saying one thing and doing another. The holier-than-thous rise up in unison, it would appear, to try to condemn a government that actually is operating in the best interests of all Canadians, is doing the right thing when it comes to EI reforms and is adjusting accordingly.

Why? Having done what we did in terms of the EI adjustments and having listened to the people—which is actually what good government should do and then readjust accordingly—readjusting is exactly what we are doing with Bill C-2 today. We are moving expeditiously.

Why are we doing this? We are doing it because we need to make the adjustments necessary and do so in a retroactive way that will enable the workers and those who will benefit as a result of the changes we are proposing to benefit in a manner consistent with the values of this great country. That is precisely what we are doing.

It becomes crystal clear, then, at least to me and the members on this side of the House, that fundamental elements of the reform package such as the hours based system and the first dollar coverage are working well. However, there are some elements that need adjustment and fine tuning to ensure effectiveness and fairness in the system.

Over the past number of years since this government took office after the Tories opposite, who left this country bankrupt and in a mess, we have known that because of good governance, fiscal prudence and wise decisions we have brought back prosperity to Canada. In fact, with regard to unemployment we are now nationally at 6.8%. All I can say is that this is enormously good news for Canada and for all Canadians. It is the lowest level in a quarter of a century.

However, as we know, there are still pockets across this great country where unemployment remains in double digits. Those are the areas we need to address, because after all, we want all Canadians to share in this new prosperity, and when those who are not sharing in it need help, it is the Canadian way to assist people who require that assistance. I am thinking, for example, of forestry workers on the west coast. I am thinking about construction workers in Ontario and fishers in the maritime provinces. These hardworking Canadians often struggle, but they are the backbone of their communities and, by extension, they are the backbone of Canada. These are the people we are reaching out to help. That is precisely what I believe Canadians expect us to do.

We need to act swiftly and we are doing that today. We have had hours of debate. We have had a number of days on this. It is now time to act and move on. That is why time allocation is here today. We want to proceed, and we want to proceed with expedition to ensure that the few elements of our reforms that need to be adjusted will be adjusted, such as the intensity rule and the clawback provision. In doing that, the program needs to respond, then, to the realities facing countless communities across Canada that depend on seasonal industries. Many offer limited options for working off season. In these many communities, I am afraid that the intensity rule has proved ineffective in reducing dependency and is viewed as simply punitive. That is why we are doing what we are doing today to correct that.

As members may know, a person's EI benefit rate is reduced by one percentage point for every 20 weeks of regular or fishing benefits he or she has collected in the previous five years. Depending on the numbers of weeks of benefits paid in previous years, a person's benefit rate would drop from the usual 55% to 54%, then to 53%, and down eventually, as we know, to 50%.

Our goal is simple. It is to reduce reliance on EI, but—and this is a big but—our analysis that we have done in this all-important area shows that in practice the rule does not curtail frequent EI use, particularly in areas where there are few job opportunities.

In short, there is growing concern that the intensity rule acts only as a penalty. That is unacceptable, so we want to eliminate that rule, and effective and actually retroactive to October 1, 2000, we propose, then, that the basic benefit rate be restored to 55% for everyone. I think that is a good move. Certainly my constituents in Waterloo—Wellington agree with that.

This does not mean that we will accept the high unemployment found in these regions. EI is only part of the solution. Certainly we should think about it and think about it hard and long. There is a growing need for everyone, governments, businesses, communities and individual Canadians, to work in partnership to stimulate local economies and make the economy work for everyone, especially people who might not otherwise get the chance.

We need to work together, then, to create sustainable employment opportunities for everyone. For example, I want to point out that the Atlantic investment partnership is a $700 million initiative aimed at helping Atlantic Canada generate jobs and growth in the new economy. I remember with dismay when people from the reformed Alliance made the kinds of comments they did about Atlantic Canadians. What was it again? They called them lazy and indolent. What an insult. I want to point out right here and now what an insult that was, not only to Atlantic Canadians but to all Canadians. That is how those people opposite think. They think in those biased, stereotyped terms.

Thank goodness that we on the government side do not think like those people with a dinosaur, Jurassic Park mentality, but let us move on to the positive. The positive is quite simply what our government is doing to ensure that we help people no matter where they are: east, west, north or south. We are ensuring that they get on with the business at hand and that they have good economic bases for themselves and their families.

I will borrow a line from Gilbert Dumont, president of the local Charlevoix committee on EI. He said that we must find permanent solutions to employment in our regions. He is absolutely correct. We on the government side are trying to ensure that is precisely what happens.

That is why our government is forging strong partnerships with businesses and communities to create new opportunities that reward work and people in that sense. We need to provide more Canadians with the tools and opportunities they need to support their families and earn a good living.

In conclusion, employment insurance is a tremendously important social program for Canadians. It is well regarded and well respected. From time to time we have to fine tune it to ensure that it works effectively and efficiently, but it is a program that Canadians cherish. We on the government side will continue to ensure that it is in place for all Canadians wherever they live in our great country.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.


Mario Laframboise Bloc Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Madam Speaker, we are all here in this House to represent the people in our respective ridings. I am sure my problems in this House are far from over.

Throughout the entire election campaign triggered by the Prime Minister, I have heard colleagues admit openly that a mistake had been made with the Employment Insurance Act. The reform of 1996 was a mistake for all the workers of Canada, the workers of Quebec in particular. This reform has only given the government the opportunity to make profit at the expense of the workers.

A while ago, I heard a member across the way telling us this was a social program. Employment insurance is not a social program, it is insurance, one paid into every week by workers from their paycheques, in order to be covered if they run into difficulty.

During the campaign, we saw this government exhibit a flagrant lack of humanity. With the holidays close at hand, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois wrote to the leaders of all the other parties asking that the House sit December 19 in order to try to settle the employment insurance problem.

That lack of humanity became evident when the only leader to refuse to come to the House to discuss the employment insurance problem was the leader of the Liberal Party. Since we would have come to this House to settle one single question, we would have had time to debate and resolve this issue of employment insurance that is so important to all Quebecers and Canadians.

The government, through the leader of the Liberal Party, refused to take part in this important debate sought by the leader of the Bloc Quebecois.

The position of the Bloc Quebecois on employment insurance has remained unchanged. The debate must be held in two parts, so that the pressing discussions on the applicability of the program may be held and a decision on the use of the $32 billion surplus amassed by the Government of Canada on the backs of workers may then be reached.

What will the government do with this surplus, which is growing by $6 billion a year? Bill C-2 promises a return to workers of no more than 8% of the surplus accumulated annually.

So there is a big problem. The government has again refused to listen to the Bloc Quebecois and to split this debate and this bill so we may debate a separate bill dealing only with the $32 billion surplus and have another bill that would deal only with pressing matters.

My riding of Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel faces significant employment problems. Over the summer, the rate of unemployment was around 8% to 8.5%. With the arrival of winter, the rate goes up. At the moment, the rate of unemployment is around 14%.

Employment is primarily in forestry, agriculture and tourism. Obviously, with the announcement of large investments in Mirabel for the foreign trade zone, major industry is making an appearance in our riding. This, by the way, is the work of the government of Quebec, through its finance minister.

No federal money was invested in the foreign trade zone. These are all tax credits and investment credits from the Government of Quebec. Once again the federal government has done nothing. But let us get back to the topic at hand, the EI bill.

Members have understood that the major amendments sought by the Bloc Quebecois are still relevant and deserve more attention than the limited speaking time we are getting today, because the government has decided to shut down debate. We are still left with the infamous waiting period. Bill C-2 still contains the two week waiting period.

People in the street call this a penalty. Workers are made to wait two weeks. This is a penalty. Everywhere we go, people tell us they have to wait out their two-week penalty. With a $32 billion surplus in the fund, is it not time to reconsider this waiting period, this penalty applied to workers when the fund in fact belongs to them?

Is there not some way for associations of workers in Quebec and in Canada to sit down around a table and say “Listen, now that there is a surplus in the fund, it is time to reconsider this waiting period, this penalty applied to workers”?

Yesterday there was a major fire in my riding that left some forty employees all but out in the street with only employment insurance to turn to. They will have to wait out the two-week penalty period because their place of work went up in flames yesterday.

It is unbelievable in a modern society, with surpluses of $32 billion in the employment insurance fund, that workers who are out of work because their plant burned down would be penalized and have to wait two weeks. It is high time we review this two week waiting period.

Why will the government not do so? For the simple reason that this two week waiting period will allow it to increase its surpluses in the employment insurance fund. We were protected until today. The $32 billion remained in the government's virtual surpluses. That money was not touched. Now, with Bill C-2, the government will appropriate the $32 billion from the employment insurance fund.

It will be able to use the money saved because of this two week waiting period imposed on Quebec and Canadian workers, who work hard to earn a living. The government will be able to take that money and invest it in businesses. Members should look at what has been going on in recent months with investments in the Prime Minister's riding. The workers' money will be used to reward friends of the Liberal Party.

This situation is unacceptable. It must stop. Workers in Quebec and Canada must finally be allowed to take advantage of employment insurance surpluses that belong to them. These workers need a true program that reflects their needs in our modern society, as the Prime Minister says.

It is time Canadian and particularly Quebec workers have access to that money and have a program that reflects their needs, so that they can finally benefit, in difficult times, from a true insurance program that they have funded themselves. No one in the House should ever again say that this is a social program. It is not a social program. It is insurance that belongs to the workers in Quebec and Canada.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

12:35 p.m.

Burin—St. George's Newfoundland & Labrador


Bill Matthews LiberalParliamentary Secretary to President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure today to say a few words on the debate amending the Employment Insurance Act. I have listened intently to colleagues from both sides of the House and their serious discussion and comments pertaining to what is a very important issue for most members of the House of Commons.

I represent a very rural riding on the south coast of Newfoundland and Labrador where people through no fault of their own find themselves working seasonally. As someone said to me not too long ago, it is not the workers that are seasonal. It is the nature of the business they work in that is seasonal, whether it is forestry, logging or the construction industry, which is dictated by the abilities of government to fund road construction or climatic conditions such as winter conditions that prevent construction from taking place.

In my area of the country it has been dictated by the mismanagement of fish stocks around our coast. People who once worked for 12 months a year now find themselves working for much reduced periods of time. The length of employment the people I represent now enjoy has been decided in large measure by actions of successive federal governments.

We brought our resources into Confederation. The Government of Canada was supposed to be the custodian of our resources for our people. We have found that the situation has not quite worked out, for we find ourselves in some very difficult circumstances.

The people who I represent along the south coast of Newfoundland and Labrador always worked for 12 months a year. They did not know what vacations were. Our fish resources were so abundant that our people harvested and brought the fish to shore where our plant workers processed the fish in the processing plants. Then there was a collapse in our groundfish industry and as a consequence the duration of employment was significantly reduced.

As I travel around the coast it is quite sad to see what has happened to very proud people who knew nothing other than 12 months of work and through no fault of their own now work in a very seasonal industry, the fishery of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The bill was introduced last fall. Debate had begun. Then we went into a general election. Obviously Canadians gave the government a very clear mandate to proceed in the direction we were going in, which is the direction we are continuing today. That is why we reintroduced the bill.

The changes in the bill will certainly improve our ability to address the original goals of employment insurance reform that were introduced before the election. One very important amendment we see coming forward today is the elimination of the intensity rule.

I have met on many occasions with representatives of fisheries unions, logging unions and construction workers all along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. One thing they can never understand, and I never understood it as well, is how the intensity rule ever got passed into law. We have been penalizing people through no fault of their own because they happen to live in regions of the country where they are unable to find full time employment.

The intensity rule has penalized them each time they were laid off and went to reopen an EI claim. The dreaded intensity rule reduced their employment insurance benefits by 1%. They went from 55% down to 51%, where most of them are right now. If it had continued they would have bottomed out at 50%. They would never have gone back up to the 55% benefit rate if these amendments had not been introduced in the House. I strongly support the elimination of the intensity rule because it has penalized people in all regions who could least afford such penalization.

What really was ironic and brought it home to me was that the Government of Canada was the custodian of our fish resources from coast to coast to coast. We make decisions about how much fish we can catch and the technologies that can be used in harvesting fish. All management decisions about fish resources are made by the Government of Canada, and successive federal governments have mismanaged our fish resources. That is why our groundfish stocks collapsed and our people were put out of work.

How ironic it was to see the very people who were put out of work because of government mismanagement and a decline in fish stocks being penalized each time they re-opened an EI claim, and through no fault of their own, by the government that was supposed to be managing those resources on their behalf.

I am absolutely delighted today to see that we are going to eliminate the intensity rule and re-establish the benefit rate to 55%. Those of us who have followed EI reform for the last six or seven years know full well that not too long ago the benefit rate was much higher than 55%. Even with re-establishing it at 55%, people are still receiving significantly less in EI benefits than they were five or six years ago and are still bringing home far less through no fault of their own.

As well, I am very pleased that we are going to see the removal of the benefit repayment clawback. It will be raised to $48,750. This is very important as well to a lot of people because at the $39,000 cap many people were clawed back when they filed their income tax return. Raising that cap is a very good move.

The other encouraging thing is that the measure will apply to the 2000 taxation year and those people who are filing income tax returns about now will benefit for that year.

Representing a very rural riding in Newfoundland and Labrador, I am very pleased as well to see that there will be an adjustment to the fishing regulations pertaining to special benefits to ensure that self-employed fishers can take advantage of the recently improved maternity, parental and sickness benefits. Again, this measure will be effective retroactive to December 31, 2000.

These amendments are very positive and are amendments that I strongly support. I lobbied and worked hard within the Atlantic Liberal caucus and the national caucus to bring about those changes because I believed they were needed. It has been a key undertaking of mine to bring about changes. Even though the government, back in 1996, said it would monitor, assess and evaluate the employment insurance reforms that were brought in, and we had done that, I felt that three or four of those measures were very necessary to make the system fair. Those measures included taking away the penalties that were being imposed on people who were involved in seasonal work through no fault of their own. I am delighted that we are making those amendments.

Having said that, and realizing that my time is about up, I just want to say that even with those changes and amendments, there are other areas of the Employment Insurance Act that, in my view, still need to reviewed, such as changes to the divisor factor and some other things. We are making some very important changes with those amendments, but other important amendments and changes are needed.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Charlie Penson Canadian Alliance Peace River, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am happy to take part in the debate today. The member who just spoke talked about the need for seasonal workers to be covered. I note that in Bill C-2 there has been a longstanding problem where farmers, for example, who work off the farm have always had to pay into the employment insurance fund but have never been able to qualify. That is seasonal work too. It should be one way or the other. If they cannot qualify, they should not have to pay into it. That is a needed reform that has bugged me and a lot of people in agriculture for a long time.

I want to ask why it is so important today to rush the bill through the House by using time allocation. This is a leftover from the last parliament. In fact, it probably was created as a result of the Liberals losing a number of seats in the Atlantic provinces in 1997. I think the member who just spoke would agree with that. He is one who moved over to the Liberal Party as a result of those changes, so it was politically motivated I suspect.

It seems to me that if the bill was so important when it was introduced last year, why did the government not see it through at that time? The question of how important it was did not seemed to deter the Prime Minister when he called an early election after only three and a half years. It was left to die on the order paper along with a number of other bills that the government had as its priorities.

Why was parliament not continued on at that time and allowed to have the kind of debate we needed to properly debate this bill? No, we had to have time allocation again today. I have been in the House since 1993 and I think it is the 69th time that the Liberal government has used time allocation on these types of bills.

The part that bothers me more than anything is this: what is so heavy on the government's agenda that it would force us to move this quickly on Bill C-2? There is a total of eight bills that have been introduced so far, hardly a heavy legislative agenda from my point of view. It is the first bill that was introduced by the Liberals this session and they are using time allocation to ram it through parliament. What kind of signal are they sending to the Canadian public?

Why did they call an election so early? Why did they not have it as a priority to continue on and resolve this last fall, instead of having to go to an election which caused the House to be dissolved? In fact, they were not in that much of a hurry to come back in January. If it was that important why did they not call the House back in January to get right at it? No, they did not do that.

Now we have this ludicrous situation where the Liberals have now exceeded Brian Mulroney's terrible record in terms of time allocation on bills. I noticed that they managed to be very critical of that when they were on the other side of the House, They said it was an affront to democracy. The Liberals have passed Mr. Mulroney's record in roughly the same amount of time. They are going to continue to use that as a club in the House of Commons.

This is not the first time it has affected me, either. On October 20, 1999, I spoke about time allocation and how it affected my ability and other members' ability to speak on the one of the bills in the industry category, Bill C-6, the privacy bill. I had just been appointed the industry critic for our party. I have the Hansard here. It was another bill the Liberals seem to have been in trouble with. They had not consulted the provinces to any great length. The Senate had to bail them out in terms of a lot of amendments that came through to pick up the bill and make it better. I give the Senate credit for doing that.

Yesterday Senator Grafstein was very critical of the House of Commons for running bills through this place without proper debate and proper consideration, in a hurried manner, and therefore leaving the Senate to clean them up. I suggest that this is one of those kinds of bills. Why the hurry? Why can we not have the proper debate in the House? It does not make any sense. This is the place to debate. I know a lot of our members would like to speak on it and are not being allowed to.

This is an old tactic. I was restricted in October 1999. I said at the time that it was the 65th time they had used time allocation. We are now up to 69. The clock is ticking. I am not sure why the Liberals have to do this, but they seem like they want to poke the finger in the eye of those people who want proper debate in the House of Commons. It does not make any sense.

We have the Canada employment insurance program. The government seems to think that it can put in a program that can substitute for a job. That is wrong. Thirty years ago it was an insurance program and the government has moved it away from being that. We would like to make changes to that and have the employers and the employees administer this program. However, that is not the case. In fact, I read in my notes that in Bill C-2 the Liberals even want to change some of the aspect of consultation and advice provided by the Employment Insurance Commission. Its advisory capacity is being taken away. It seems like the Liberals want to control this.

The government had a $35 billion surplus in the EI fund. The people who watch this said that we probably need $10 billion to $15 billion to be prudent. The fund is roughly $20 billion over those amounts. What is the government doing with the fund? It goes into general revenue and gives the Liberals a chance to play with the hard-earned money which has been taken off the paycheques of employees. It also affects employers as well.

Canadians would be far better served if that amount were lowered to a prudent calculation, roughly $10 billion to $15 billion, stop the payroll taxes on hardworking Canadians. The finance minister said that in 1994. When he needed more money to play with, suddenly it was not a payroll tax anymore. That is really what it is.

Some people would argue that the government has balanced its books on the backs of employees and employers who contribute to the fund. There is some justification for that and it needs to be reviewed.

There is no substitute in Canada for real employment. The employment insurance program that the government has been tinkering with will not do it. It has to get the fundamentals right and get taxes down, including payroll taxes, personal taxes and corporate taxes. We see the United States moving in that direction. Canada has not caught up from the last round in terms of corporate and personal income tax. We are at a real disadvantage. Our employers and companies are at a real disadvantage if we compare them to those in the United States.

Twenty years ago the productivity of Canada and the United States was almost exactly the same. What has happened in twenty years? The United States is still number one in terms of productivity. Where is Canada today? Canada is ranked 13th in the industrial world.

It is no coincidence that these things have happened. They have happened because of thirty years of mismanagement by the government across the way, a big interventionist government and growing government programs, programs which were financed with deficit financing. Increasing deficits require payments to pay off the interest on the huge national debt.

Canada is faced with a 30 year decline in our dollar. We have a 30 year decline in direct foreign investment in Canada. Even Canadians are looking outside our country for a place to invest because they cannot get the kind of return on investments they need. The EI fund is one of the funds responsible for this.

Up until 30 years ago, when Canada made those changes, Canadian and American unemployment rates could be charted. They were basically the same year in and year out, in good times or bad. Canada had a divergence in that 30 year period and we are roughly 3% to 4% higher than the United States all the time.

There need to be reforms. There needs to be proper debate in the House. I am very concerned that the government is moving so early in this new parliament to cut off debate on such very important issues. It should be chastized for doing that and should not follow that course of action in the future. Members across the way should be ashamed to support that kind of government intervention.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.


Ghislain Fournier Bloc Manicouagan, QC

Mr. Speaker, first of all, I would like to thank my fellow citizens of Manicouagan for showing their confidence in the Bloc Quebecois for the third time in a row.

Personally, this is my second mandate, and they almost tripled my majority. What a vote of confidence, and I thank them for that. The local press described my win as a landslide victory, since I obtained 54% of the votes, compared to the 28.5%—or to be generous 29%—of my closest opponent, a Liberal.

Today I am, of course, pleased to rise to speak on Bill C-2, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and the Employment Insurance (Fishing) Regulations. This is a debate that goes back to the January 1997 reform of the employment insurance program.

That reform was supposed to have been in response to the expectations of the public and the realities of the labour market. Predictably, it has had the opposite effect.

Bill C-2 comes nowhere near responding to the expectations of the unemployed and of the workers. With it, the government is only providing a very incomplete correction to the problems caused by its past reforms. It is not addressing the real problems, and the amendments proposed are highly inadequate.

First of all, the matter of eligibility has not yet been settled. What the government is doing with its employment insurance bill is simply legalizing the diversion of $30 billion from the employment insurance fund. This money clearly belongs to the workers, the unemployed and the employers who have contributed to employment insurance.

Legalizing this diversion of $30 billion is as if the government took $100 from a worker's pocket and then gave him only $8 back.

Taking the surplus in the employment insurance fund, which came from the pockets of workers, without their permission fits the dictionary definition of theft. This morning I checked the Petit Robert for the French definition of voler , and it translates stealing as taking something that does not belong to us. This is disgraceful.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

1 p.m.


Denis Coderre Liberal Bourassa, QC

Oh, oh, bad language.

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1 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Order, please. I would ask the hon. member to be a little more judicious in the choice of his words. I do not want to contradict the definition given by one dictionary or another, but there are certain expressions that are never appropriate to the fine traditions of this parliament, including the word “theft”.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

1 p.m.


Ghislain Fournier Bloc Manicouagan, QC

Mr. Speaker, once again, I did not say it. It was in the dictionary, but I will of course respect your recommendation.

I was saying that it is shameful to see the government taking money from society's most disadvantaged, men and women who have lost their jobs, who are vulnerable and who sometimes have no means to defend themselves. It is all the more shameful to see the government boasting in the throne speech that it is ensuring all children are protected from poverty.

Worse yet, in another paragraph, there is the following:

There was a time when losing a job also meant immediate loss of income for workers and their families. And so Canadians created employment insurance.

This government is ignoring the demands by social groups opposing the legalization of this misappropriation of $38 billion dollars from employment insurance, which is now $30 billion.

Clearly, employment insurance has become a payroll tax. The government is refusing to give the unemployed and workers what is coming to them and continuing to accumulate surpluses on their backs. It has no concern for their welfare, and they are left behind by this employment insurance reform.

The measures in this bill will not solve the problems caused by the system, including those of seasonal workers in the regions, especially young people, women and all workers in general.

The Bloc Quebecois opposes Bill C-2 in its present form. The Bloc Quebecois is proposing a favourable and constructive approach, because it feels that it is essential to respond as quickly as possible to the real needs of unemployed workers. This is why it is calling for two bills.

The first bill would deal with urgent needs. This is what the Bloc Quebecois would propose: abolition of the intensity rule, of course; abolition of the discriminatory practice of taxing back the benefits of frequent claimants; an increase in insurable earnings from 55% to 60%, so that unemployed workers could have a decent income; abolition of the clause that discriminates against new entrants in the workforce, especially young people and women; and, finally, abolition of the waiting period.

The second bill would concentrate on long term amendments to be discussed in committee, such as the creation of an independent EI fund.

Before the election was called in the fall, the government introduced the same bill, giving the Liberals full control over the EI fund. At the end of 1999, the surplus in the EI fund stood at approximately $30 billion. Since 1994-95, the Liberals have helped themselves to more than $38 billion in this fund. Hence the importance of creating an independent fund.

This bill does not meet the essential demands of the Bloc Quebecois. The government does not go far enough to improve the system and put a stop to the discriminatory criteria. The government broke its election promises when Bill C-44 was introduced before the election campaign. People said that bill did not go far enough. During the election campaign, the Prime Minister himself admitted that his government had made mistakes. He said “It is true that we made major mistakes in that bill”. The Secretary of State for Amateur Sport personally pledged to make changes to the Employment Insurance Act.

For example, on November 9, 2000, the daily Le Soleil reported that the secretary of state had said that “Following the election of a majority Liberal government we will restore the process and ensure that the changes are appropriate and that they adequately reflect the realities and needs of the people of the Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean region and of all Quebecers and Canadians. I am committed to making changes to the act and we will make changes”.

The Secretary of State for Amateur Sport came to my riding because workers from the FTQ, the steelworkers union, and the CSN had planned a protest. He came to ask them not to protest, because he would personally make sure that changes would be made. This is a disgrace.

Where is the Secretary of State for Amateur Sport and what is he doing? Absolutely nothing at this point. We do not hear him and we did not hear him during the debate on this bill. Now that the election has been held, we find ourselves with the same bill as before and the issue is still not settled. This attitude is unacceptable. We can no longer hope that politicians will be taken seriously when they display the attitude I just described. This is no longer what we call democracy. It is misleading the public. People expect more than mere election promises. They expect significant and concrete corrective measures.

Under the current plan, higher income earners, for example those engaged in seasonal work, particularly in the construction sector, have to pay money back when they file their income tax returns, if they have earned more under the employment insurance reform.

Over the past five or six years, employment insurance has been the single most important factor influencing poverty in Quebec and in Canada. As I said earlier, the government claims to want to protect poor children. If there are children living in poverty, it is because there are parents living in poverty. The government has not done anything to reduce poverty in this country. Therefore, the Bloc Quebecois will oppose Bill C-2.

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1:10 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Dave Chatters Canadian Alliance Athabasca, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join in the debate today on Bill C-2. Before I get into the bill, I would like to take the opportunity, this being my first time to speak in the new parliament, to thank my constituents of Athabasca for returning me to the House of Commons for the third time.

It certainly was a very emotional, hurtful and difficult election campaign. Some unwarranted accusations flew around both in the national campaign and in the local campaign in my riding. I was very pleased that my constituents saw through that and chose to return me in spite of the rhetoric. I am very humbled to come back and serve them in the House once more.

The debate this morning and the action of the government to invoke closure or time allocation on the bill certainly disappointing. I came here some seven and a half years ago, perhaps overly idealistic about what parliament was all about, how it worked and how I could serve my country and be part of the institution that makes laws and governs and guides the country.

Certainly after seven years I think most of us, not only on this side of the House but a good number on the other side, share the opinion expressed by my former colleague, Lee Morrison, who served in the House for seven years. In a very blunt article yesterday or the day before in the National Post , he expressed total disillusionment and extreme disappointment with the relevancy of the House Commons and how it works.

I do not discount any of the accusations or comments he made, and I think many of my colleagues would agree with them. Perhaps those of us who are here live in the eternal hope that something might change somewhere along the line and we might actually have some reform in this place to make it relevant and give us some real input and influence in the way things happen. I think that would be a huge step forward. However, after the government's actions this morning I would not hold my breath. In spite of what seems to be a desire on all sides for change, it does not seem likely to happen. It could, however, happen easily.

There were accusations from a member of the other place that the quality of legislation being passed in this place was failing or dropping. I am sure the comments made by the member of the other place were self-serving and meant to justify the Senate's very existence, to some degree. On the other hand, there is probably some truth in what he said because over the last seven years this government has continually moved to consolidate power in the hands of the very few at the centre.

The quality of legislation would be better if there were any hope that when a bill entered this place and went through the process, it would emerge amended and improved. If so, some of the flaws that could show up down the road, pointed out no doubt by the courts, could be corrected before the bill was finished.

However, the government seems to have the attitude that once it introduces a bill it will lose face if an opposition or committee member amends a fundamental part of it. The government feels that would be a loss of face, and it just cannot allow that to happen. The government therefore uses its majority in the House and on committees at every stage, and the bill proceeds through as a matter of principle and of saving face rather than out of a real concern to produce the best possible bill at the end of the process.

There is no reason why the very drafting of the bill or the amendment could not be given to the all party parliamentary committees for input from all parties involved from the very beginning. Perhaps we could lessen the degree of ownership by the government in the bill. Everybody could have somewhat of a stake in the content of the bill, perhaps would be better able to support it, and feel that they are actually having some input and making some changes to the bill.

I am disappointed. It seems it just goes on and nothing ever changes. In spite of an express desire for change across the country, it does not change and I do not expect it ever will change to any great degree.

Bill C-2 is an effort to amend the Employment Insurance Act. The intention of the bill is truly misguided. We went down this road many years ago. I think we were making some progress in reform of employment insurance, which used to be unemployment insurance. Incentives were provided for people to find employment rather than incentives to remain unemployed. The bill seems to be returning to those times, especially in economically depressed regions of the country, when the EI program, or the UI program as it used to be known, was an incentive not to work rather than an incentive to work.

I heard some discussion earlier in the House about whether or not EI had become a social program rather than an insurance program. Clearly this is a move back toward becoming a social program and away from becoming an insurance program. I think that is supported simply by the fact that all kinds of sections or parts of the EI program are inarguably social programs. I am thinking of maternity and parental leave, which has recently become a much larger part of the employment insurance program. It is clearly a social program.

We moved away from that some years back in that employment insurance became harder and harder to obtain. One had to fulfil certain obligations to remain and to receive employment insurance wherever one lived. This is a move back toward seasonal employment coverage where people in economically depressed areas with seasonal employment went on the program. They seemed to be able to stay on the program for an extended period of time without actually having to show that they were actively job searching, without having to produce a number of job searches per week. In my view that is a social program because it tides workers over from a season of employment to an unemployment season and back to employment. That to me is not an insurance program.

Another kind of perverse incentive that seems to be inherent is that the ease of getting into the program and receiving employment insurance seems to go up the higher unemployment is in the area. The more depressed the area is, the easier it is to get employment insurance. That does not seem to be very productive.

Communities and industries in my part of Canada are crying out in huge numbers for workers and simply cannot get them. I get a dozen requests a week from companies applying to the foreign workers union to bring workers into Canada because they cannot find local people to work at the jobs. Yet we have this program that pays seasonal workers in parts of Canada to remain unemployed and remain where they are rather than provide some incentive to move to a part of Canada like my part of Canada where there is a need for those workers and where they could be gainfully employed.

There are a lot of other elements of the program that need amending. We need to change and go back to what was started some five or six years ago by this government. I hope the government will listen to some suggestions from the opposition and other members in committee so we might make this a better bill.

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1:20 p.m.


Wendy Lill NDP Dartmouth, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to address Bill C-2 today and to give the bill my qualified support.

That is not to say that I support the government's draconian tactics of shutting down the debate using closure. Use of closure once again shows that the government has a disregard for the central role of debate in the House and in committees.

While I feel compelled to support the baby steps that the bill takes to reverse the massive damage that the same government did to our unemployment insurance system, I do so reluctantly. I do so because I know it is better for the people in Dartmouth to have a little improvement than none at all.

At the same time, I also feel compelled to point out the basic flaws in the current system which the bill fails to even contemplate.

Bill C-2 fails to deal with the fundamental contradictions of our national employment strategy. We have Canada employment centres in almost every community in Canada actively promoting self-employment as a way to deal with an increasingly transitional labour force.

At the same time these same Canada employment centres administer an insurance program for unemployed Canadians that is specifically designed to deny all self-employed workers the same benefits their neighbours enjoy if they find themselves unemployed. This is madness. Why should someone become more economically vulnerable because they followed the government's advice to move into self-employment? Why should they put their families at risk because the government has decided that the best way to manage our labour market is to cut people off EI benefits?

Ottawa has been saving billions of dollars through denying people the right to adequate employment protection in the event of unemployment. The calculation of the amount of money lost to my community alone has been at least $20 million per year simply because of the restrictions this government has put in place. It has limited the amount of payouts claimants can receive and has reduced the number of persons eligible for benefits.

I reluctantly support the bill because some of these restrictions are being removed and my community needs the money, but the bill does nothing to address the fundamental problems with our employment insurance system.

It does nothing, for example, to address the fact that artists are currently unable to qualify for employment insurance. Our government considers artists self-employed, a fact that many would dearly love to change, and they are therefore denied maternity benefits and sickness benefits under EI. They are also denied the ability to participate in the Canada pension plan.

Does the government honestly believe that artists or others who are self-employed never have children, never get sick or never develop a disability? It is a tribute to our artists that they have been willing to make such a sacrifice for their art, but surely it is not a necessary part of our public policy or, if it is, I want the government to stand in this place and say so.

We also have no serious industrial plan to allow for the smooth transition for workers who lose their jobs in a certain occupation to go into another related occupation. Instead, they are told to become entrepreneurs, ineligible for EI, and it is often an unsuitable match for both.

I think of the situation of the more than 100 workers who are being laid off at the Dartmouth marine slips. These workers have worked for years repairing ships. They have exhausted their reduced EI benefits and are now facing welfare. They want to work in the supply bases for the Sable gas fields. While they are receiving co-operation from the local HRDC office, it is clear that there is nothing in our employment insurance system which connects the dots that they see so clearly.

One dot is an industry closing. Another dot is a related industry opening in the same area. Why can we not just move these workers to the new industry and give their families some security?

However, this is not something our system allows for. Instead we have a government basking in over $30 billion of employment insurance surplus while still leaving thousands of workers, even after Bill C-2, with no benefits.

Even worse is the insistence by large corporations and the official opposition that the action they would like to see is not giving unemployed people adequate benefits for which they have already paid or not extending the program to others who need it. Instead they call for slashing the costs to companies for EI premiums while maintaining our currently restrictive system. More money for businesses and less for the unemployed is the business agenda of this social program.

I hope the government will start to use our employment insurance system to address the problems of working families. It is time that the government begins to address the obstacles facing the unemployed, artists, Canadians with disabilities, and thousands of Canadians who find themselves between jobs through no fault of their own and need the assistance from a fair and equitable employment insurance program.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

1:25 p.m.


Marcel Gagnon Bloc Champlain, QC

Mr. Speaker, during the recent election campaign, there was so much talk of amending the Employment Insurance Act that I thought that a bill would be introduced as early as possible in this parliament and that there would also be an early opportunity for the House to debate it.

There is no denying that the government members spoke about it everywhere. The Liberals tried to win votes with this bill and I think that they succeeded in doing so with their promise to amend the legislation to make it fairer and more acceptable to workers.

The Prime Minister himself admitted that some mistakes had been made in the Employment Insurance Act and he promised to do something about them. My colleagues mentioned that other ministers had visited the various regions in Quebec and said the same thing.

Does this mean that there really are two different tunes: the one during the election campaign cleverly designed to bring in votes, and the other when the rubber hits the road? In this parliament, where decisions are made that affect the lives of all Canadians and Quebecers, the Liberals have decided that what they said during the election campaign no longer holds.

I think that many voters in my riding did not believe the promises they were hearing. But they hoped. I am thinking of the La Tuque area in Haute-Mauricie. It is a tourist region. It depends on forestry. Employment there is naturally fairly seasonal. These people deserve help. That is not the proper word, because they are helping themselves. My colleague for Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel has just told us that employment insurance is not a social measure, but insurance we pay as workers, provided we are in insurable jobs.

The purpose of paying into insurance is to have protection when needed. We are always at our most vulnerable when we need the protection of insurance. It is always when we are in difficulty.

In my riding, there are workers whose plant has closed down for a time, but they are hoping to get their jobs back. A paper plant has closed temporarily. When are they going to get their jobs back? There is talk of a two week penalty period, of punishing people who are absolutely not at fault. This insurance is a worker's right. It is not the property of the government.

I do not want to get called to order like one of my colleagues for using words that are apparently not to be used in the House. You have already pointed that out to one of my colleagues. I will not say that it is robbery, although I will think so. However, I shall not say so.

The government has a fund containing some $32 billion to $38 billion paid into it by workers and employers. I have been a worker and an employer. When, as an employer, I hire someone, the benefits I give in terms of employment insurance, the part the employer pays, is deducted from his pay. It comes out of his hourly wage. So, in fact, employment insurance is paid for 100% by the workers.

When the government decides to take that, to go off with it, to put it in a common fund, in the pot, and at the same time decides to cut the taxes of society's richest, I see it as taking money from the person who needs it, who paid insurance, and giving it to the other, who does not need it or needs it less. In my opinion, if that is not theft, it looks like it.

I promised the workers in my riding during the election and more recently to talk about it in parliament. It cannot be done this way. Even more shameful, in my opinion, is limiting the time to debate it, but I understand them. I understand their wanting not to talk too long about such an unfair law, which makes off with money people have legally paid, to use it for other things. I understand their wanting to get this law through quickly.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

1:30 p.m.

An hon. member

It is scandalous.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

1:30 p.m.


Marcel Gagnon Bloc Champlain, QC

I agree that it is scandalous. They were saying earlier “Wait, we can change this law in committee”. I am not dreaming in technicolour; I know what was promised and what was put before the House, but we will see whether, in committee, we can change it.

I personally think it will make no sense if this law is not changed to give the workers their due, especially since this parliament, the parliament of Canadians and Quebecers, is the parliament of what the Prime Minister boasts about as one of the fairest countries, particularly in social terms, for society's poorest.

I think it vital we return to order and find a way to give the money back to those who paid it, for the reasons they paid it. It is not up to the government to say “You have paid this money for insurance, but we think you do not need the insurance. So we will take it to lower taxes for the rich”.

If you had the misfortune of seeing your house burn down, you would contact your insurer and say “Unfortunately, my house burned down”. Then you would learn from your insurer that you are not covered for the first fire, but that you will be paid if your house burns down a second time. This is more or less what the government is saying to workers. A worker who, following a sudden layoff, expects to collect employment insurance benefits to make it through this difficult period is told “No, you are not covered right now; you did not work enough hours”.

Now, instead of having to work 300 hours to collect employment insurance benefits, which were the original terms under the insurance plan, a person must have worked 910 hours. Again, this act is unfair. It needs improving. The Bloc Quebecois is prepared to co-operate if the government is willing to split this bill in two.

We agree with certain parts of the bill, but other parts absolutely must be changed. I say to workers from my region and from Quebec that we will continue to work hard to improve this act, so that they can get what they are entitled to.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

1:35 p.m.


Geoff Regan Liberal Halifax West, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased today to speak to the employment insurance bill. When I was previously here as a member of parliament in my first term, I had the experience of being involved in the review of the employment insurance bill. I can say there was a great deal of give and take within the Liberal caucus over that bill. It was the initial incarnation of the proposals which were quite different from what eventually became the law after a great deal of discussion, negotiation, and pushing and pulling.

One of the reasons the government had the support it did for the bill was that it promised that there would be an ongoing monitoring process. In the monitoring process it would examine the impact of the bill throughout the country, particularly in those areas most affected by it which relied the most on seasonal industries, as in the case of Atlantic Canada.

It was important that promise was made when the bill was passed and that the government followed up on it and had a process of monitoring the results and the impacts of the changes made in the employment insurance bill.

Having done that, the government assessed the situation, assessed the impact of those changes, and said that some of it had worked well: in some cases people had been able to find more work; others had changed their working style or the way they work and had found extra weeks in the year; and others had problems. It wanted to see how it could improve the system to better assist people who need the assistance while at the same time encourage all Canadians to maximize the work they could get, which I think all Canadians want to do.

It is important that the system be fair to Canadians and recognize the situations that Canadians are in when it comes to their work lives. There are seasonal workers across Canada, whether they be fishery workers in Atlantic Canada, construction workers in central Canada, forestry workers in the west, or people in the oil and gas industry, who are unable to find year-round work year. They rely on the employment insurance system to enable them to feed and clothe their families during difficult periods when they would prefer to be working but are unable to find work to do so. This is an important part of our social safety net, one that I think Canadians strongly believe in and strongly support.

I want to focus today on one aspect of the changes. Several changes are being made in the bill, but I will focus on the intensity rule, one of the major changes. The intensity rule was designed to encourage people to find the most work they could and try not to use the employment insurance system year after year. The idea was that for every 20 weeks of benefits claimed in the last five years they would drop 1%, from 55% of their average income to 54% to 53%. Each year it would go down 1%.

The impact has not been what was expected or intended. It seems to have been punitive and has not achieved the effect desired. Other aspects of the system and of the former bill have had positive impacts that encouraged people to find year-round work and other kinds of work. However, this aspect of the bill has not had that kind of impact. It has not had the benefit anticipated or planned.

It is encouraging to see the government recognize that and decide to change the bill, to decide to amend and eliminate the intensity rule so that seasonal workers will not feel they are being penalized because they are stuck in seasonal jobs.

Imagine a 50 year old person who has worked in the forestry, fishery or oil and gas industry for 25 or 30 years. The person has been trained for that work and cannot see any other alternative to that. He or she cannot simply become a computer programmer tomorrow or next week. That is not an option. The person has become part of a seasonal industry.

It is important to recognize the way our economy works. We cannot apply a cookie cutter approach to every industry because every industry is different. Seasonal industries are important to Canada. The fishery provides hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue to Canada and to the GDP of our economy. It is a very important industry on both coasts and on our inland waterways.

It is important that the bill be amended. I am pleased to see the government moving toward the elimination of the intensity rule. It will make the employment insurance system fairer for all Canadians. Having been a part of the review group on the original bill, it is very satisfying to see the government, having gone through this process and having looked at the impact of the bill, deciding to make these changes now.

I am also pleased to see that the government has made a change to the clawback. The clawback was originally introduced so that people who were making high incomes every year could not collect EI on top of that income every year. We have heard examples of people making $70,000 a year and on top of that income receiving employment insurance. Canadians did not like that and that was one of the reasons it made sense to make changes to the bill.

Having the clawback start at only $39,000 meant that the people who were not just high income but also of moderate income were being hit by the clawback provision. The decision to increase the clawback level, as the bill would do, to $49,000 or thereabouts, will mean that people at moderate and middle income levels will not be hit with the clawback. Those are two very important and positive changes, and they come at a time when other changes have also happened in employment insurance.

Members are well aware of the changes that provide for parental leave benefits. Most Canadians are strongly supportive of and recognize this change as important support of families in Canada.

The bill has many benefits for Canadians. Whether one is in Atlantic Canada, which is where my family lives, British Columbia or anywhere across the country, there are benefits for everyone in the employment insurance system. However, it is important to make these amendments in order to improve the system and make it fair for all Canadians.

I encourage members to join me in supporting the bill.