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.