This week, I changed much of the tech behind this site. If you see anything that looks like a bug, please let me know!

House of Commons Hansard #120 of the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was courts.

Topics

Chief Actuary ActPrivate Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Diane Ablonczy Canadian Alliance Calgary Nose Hill, AB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleagues from all parties who have spoken on this matter. Clearly stated, as members of Parliament we want to see more independence in these important watchdog activities.

I would like to read some headlines: “pension plan deficits demand attention”, September 1, 2003, Ottawa Business Journal staff byline; “retirement worries rife among middle aged”, from the Toronto Star September 2 of this year; “Drain France's pension time bomb”, from April 2002. Other countries are aging faster than Canada and their pension time bomb is starting to blow up. Our time bomb is just ticking.

Then we have “pension plan liabilities Increased in all markets” from the business editors in New York. We have U.K. headlines about “plans needed to protect pension holders”; and on and on it goes.

In the few minutes I have I would like to address the argument that the government puts forward that somehow, after Mr. Dussault was fired and said publicly that it was because he refused to fudge the numbers for the finance minister and the finance department, a new structure was put into place and now everything is okay.

The fact is that this new structure falls far short of independence for the chief actuary. The chief actuary, instead of being an independent officer of Parliament, still reports and is accountable to the finance minister and can be fired by the finance minister at the whim of the decision of the finance minister without Parliament being involved in any way. The finance minister put in a new procedure whereby he gets a report from the chief actuary but also picks a panel of other actuaries that in effect second guesses what the chief actuary says.

Let us think about how this will work. The chief actuary makes all these calculations based on a huge amount of knowledge and decisions about trends in society and there is an element of professional judgment involved. However judgment can always be second guessed. Then the finance minister sets up another panel of hand-picked actuaries who the finance minister pays, undoubtedly good and capable actuaries but again beholden to the finance minister for this appointment and pay. However that panel second guesses the chief actuary. What can the chief actuary do? Obviously this puts a real damper on the free and fair exercise of his discretion, and that is not acceptable.

We know the government leans on its appointees, on the people it hires. One only has to look at what the Prime Minister did to the president of the Business Development Bank. He forced him to accept a loan that the president knew was bad. When the loan did go bad and the president wanted to foreclose, the Prime Minister fired him. This government has that kind of a record with the people it hires to do jobs on behalf of Canadians.

This independence is absolutely critical if we are going to have full and independent judgment like the Auditor General has. This is a watchdog who is respected because the government does not own that individual. It does not choose nor pay that individual in the sense that it can hire or fire the individual. It is Parliament that has that oversight.

It is critical that we understand that the government's arguments that this new procedure of a panel to second guess the chief actuary is not good enough. It is not even close to independence. We must put a procedure in place that will guard our pensions, the future retirement security of Canadians, and that means passing this bill to ensure that the chief actuary is fully independent reporting only to Parliament.

Chief Actuary ActPrivate Members' Business

7 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Pursuant to order made earlier today, the question is deemed put and the recorded division is deemed requested and deferred until Wednesday, September 17 at 5:30 p.m.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved

Chief Actuary ActAdjournment Proceedings

7 p.m.

NDP

Svend Robinson NDP Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, there can be no more fundamental right for consumers than the right to know what is in the food they eat and yet this basic right continues to be denied to Canadian consumers.

In March of this year I asked a question of the Minister of Industry. It was answered by the Minister of Health. I pointed out that over three years ago the Minister of Industry set up an industry dominated task force to write its own rules for voluntary labelling of genetically engineered food. It was a group that was set up by the Canadian General Standards Board, and it was basically an industry run body. Earlier this year, the head of that group admitted that it was going nowhere and that it was basically a farce.

I called on the government at that time to recognize that over 80% of Canadians wanted to know what was in the food they ate and I urged the government to agree to the mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods.

Instead of responding that, yes, the government was prepared to move ahead on that, the Minister of Health told the House that “we have voluntary labelling requirements” and, “we were trying to figure out if agreement could be reached around mandatory labelling”.

Of course the minister was completely wrong on that. We do not even have voluntary labelling requirements today, let alone mandatory.

In July of this year, a couple of months after that process obviously was going nowhere, the Consumers Association of Canada withdrew from the committee that was working on the standard for voluntary labelling of genetically engineered foods because it said that the standard was so weak that it would not represent consumer concerns. The process has lost any vestiges of integrity.

I would point out that this process was set up in response to a motion by the member for Davenport who came before the House of Commons which effectively called for mandatory labelling. Instead, four ministers of the Liberal government wrote a letter to members of Parliament saying that the government would have a serious, indepth study of the issue. That study has never taken place. In fact, it was Liberal members of the committee, together with the Canadian Alliance, who subverted that study when I tried to have the committee move ahead on it.

The president of the Consumers Association of Canada said:

Canadian consumers deserve to know whether or not their food contains genetically modifiedfoods and they deserve a strong mandatory standard that holds industry accountable. The committee has beendeveloping a voluntary standard that may satisfy industry, but does not meet the needs ofconsumers.

This so-called voluntary standard would have allowed 5% as opposed to 1% in the European Union, and other provisions as well that were quite unacceptable.

Today I am once again calling upon the government to do the right thing, to recognize that its so-called voluntary process, which is an industry driven process, is going nowhere, to allow for consumers to know what is in the food they eat and to recognize that we have the right to mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods.

Chief Actuary ActAdjournment Proceedings

7:05 p.m.

Madawaska—Restigouche New Brunswick

Liberal

Jeannot Castonguay LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health

Mr. Speaker, it should be noted that the task force my hon. colleague mentioned in his question of March 25—he well remembers, as do I—worked extremely hard to develop regulations for the voluntary labelling of genetically engineered food. I am pleased to advise him also that the committee members, finally, have reached a general consensus. Their work will now be submitted to the Canadian General Standards Board.

Although the hon. member's concerns relate, in particular, to labelling, I am going to address first the regulation of genetically engineered food, because food safety and demands for mandatory labelling are often connected, as the member well knows.

Health Canada has implemented a rigorous and detailed process to assess the safety of genetically engineered foods. Under the Food and Drugs Act, genetically engineered food must be inspected by Health Canada before being sold in Canada. The goal of this measure is to ensure the safety of such foods.

If concerns related to food safety are identified, these foods are simply not approved for sale.

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency share responsibility for issuing policies on food labelling under the Food and Drugs Act.

Whenever Health Canada's safety assessments identify health issues that could be addressed by labelling, the department will require special labelling intended to alert consumers. Labelling for safety reasons remains the government's first priority.

The Government of Canada also recognizes that labelling of genetically modified foods has become an important issue for consumers and a means of expressing their opinions in the market place.

By adhering to the government's response to the report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, we are continuing to contribute to the work of the Canadian General Standards Board and the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors.

We anticipate that the standards will provide adequate labelling guidelines to the food and manufacturing industry, in order to provide consumers with access to up to date information that will help them choose their products. It does not matter whether this system is obligatory or optional; standards are needed.

We are committed to continuing to improve the information we provide to the public on the regulation of genetically modified foods.

On the Health Canada web site, we are providing general information on biotechnology, as well as answers in the frequently asked questions section.

We have also added specific summaries on each decision respecting a genetically modified food. We are currently working on enhancing the transparency of the system, in response to recommendations from the Royal Society Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology and our action plan in response to the recommendations.

The industry has worked with us in connection wtih the publication of supplementary information relating to these proposals.

As well, since last year Health Canada has been holding information sessions for public health officers and other groups from all over Canada in order to increase their awareness and understanding of the regulations and of food safety assessment. These are often the people to whom members of the public go for such information.

In conclusion, Health Canada is determined to continue to honour its commitment to constantly improve the system. We will therefore be working, in Canada and on the international level, with specialists and other regulatory bodies, on food safety assessment, based on scientific knowledge, and will also be working on ensuring that information is made available.

Chief Actuary ActAdjournment Proceedings

7:10 p.m.

NDP

Svend Robinson NDP Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, the parliamentary secretary talked about the importance of consumer choice. How can consumers choose if they are not entitled to know exactly what is in their food, if we do not have mandatory labelling?

That right is fundamental. I want to point out that in a study that was prepared for the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food earlier this year, the scientists noted that “Consumers are becoming more worried that they can't distinguish between GE and non-GE products”. They pointed out that “these concerns could precipitate a loss of confidence in the integrity of the Canadian food system” and could also affect our international markets.

I would point out that consumers were grossly underrepresented in this Canadian General Standards Board committee. There were only four groups representing consumers and one of them pulled out. From the perspective of consumers and from the perspective of our markets and our farmers, it is long overdue that the government stop the farce of voluntary labelling and move ahead with mandatory labelling. Consumers have the right to know what is in the food they eat.

Why will the government not move ahead to respect the views of 80%-plus of Canadians in this important area?

Chief Actuary ActAdjournment Proceedings

7:10 p.m.

Liberal

Jeannot Castonguay Liberal Madawaska—Restigouche, NB

Mr. Speaker, from Health Canada's perspective, certainly if genetically modified food presents a health risk, it will simply not be put on the market. This is very important. And if there are problems, particularly in terms of allergies, there will be special labelling to that effect.

Following recommendations by the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, steps were taken to introduce voluntary labelling. It was determined that there is a lot more to this issue than meets the eye. It is not as simple as some people make it out to be at times.

In terms of the complexity of the issue, following studies done by the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, it was recommended that it would be best to start with a voluntary approach to labelling.

Also, it must be understood that labelling is not as simple as it might seem at first. We have to ensure that the information on the label is what people need to know. We do not want a whole litany of information on the label, just the pertinent facts. That is what we should focus on in working together to improve our system.

Chief Actuary ActAdjournment Proceedings

7:10 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Jim Pankiw Canadian Alliance Saskatoon—Humboldt, SK

Mr. Speaker, this is of course in follow up to a question I previously asked the Minister of Finance, to which I did not receive a satisfactory answer or explanation. Let us cut to the chase here.

The Liberal federal government is imposing a tax regime upon municipalities that extracts money out of the property tax base. It makes municipalities pay the GST. It makes them pay excise taxes on fuel. The excessive employment insurance rates of course burden every business in Canada but I am coming at this from a particular perspective.

It all sucks money out of the property tax base of municipalities and it does not make any sense to do that, does it? What it is doing is diverting money straight out of the pockets of property owners into the federal government's coffers. What happens is that the money is then used to pay for Tequila Sheila's programs. Okay, that is off base a little bit.

Chief Actuary ActAdjournment Proceedings

7:15 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the member to be judicious and certainly not to make any reference to anyone unless it is by their portfolio or their riding.

Chief Actuary ActAdjournment Proceedings

7:15 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Jim Pankiw Canadian Alliance Saskatoon—Humboldt, SK

Fair enough, Mr. Speaker.

I will use a different example for my point. The firearms registry sucked a billion dollars right out of the pockets of property owners in Saskatchewan. It was sent to Ottawa so the government can impose its stupid program upon us.

This is very serious. It is sucking money out of our properties and using it to fund socialist programs. I want a decent answer this time.

Chief Actuary ActAdjournment Proceedings

7:15 p.m.

Halifax West Nova Scotia

Liberal

Geoff Regan LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to respond on behalf of my colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance.

The member's question was illogical when he first asked it in the House and it continues to be an ill-constructed sophistry.

I want to make it clear that municipalities are treated no differently than any other employers. All workers and employers are required by the Employment Insurance Act to contribute EI premiums on all insurable earnings up to an annual maximum.

The fact that the municipality as the employer raises revenues through property taxes is completely irrelevant. Municipalities are treated like any other employer.

Indeed, I would like to take the opportunity to point out that municipalities, like all other employers, have benefited from nine consecutive years of EI premium reductions. The government even reduced the premium rate for 2003 to $2.10 from $2.20.

As to legislation implemented in budget 2003, it set the 2004 premium rate at $1.98. This will mean savings for employers and employees of $1.1 billion next year compared to this year. This will represent the 10th consecutive annual reduction in EI premiums since 1994 and will result in savings to employees and employers, including municipalities, of $9.7 million next year compared to the 1994 rate of $3.07.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that the EI program treats municipalities the same as any other employer.

Chief Actuary ActAdjournment Proceedings

7:15 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Jim Pankiw Canadian Alliance Saskatoon—Humboldt, SK

Mr. Speaker, he is ducking the question. He is avoiding the issue. The fact of the matter is that the federal government's policies of excessive EI premiums, applying the GST and excise fuel taxes to municipalities sucks money out of the property tax base. Property taxes are supposed to be used to service the property. It does not make sense. He is ducking the question. He is ducking the issue.

The fact of the matter is that as a property owner in Saskatoon, I find my money from my property going off to Ottawa. That is wrong and he knows it.

I would like him to address the issue, quit giving me all his statistics and answer the question. Why does he think it is appropriate that we could divert taxes from property in Saskatchewan into Ottawa so that the government can waste it on its socialist programs? It does not make any sense and it is unjustified, definitely.

I would like him to please answer the question directly.

Chief Actuary ActAdjournment Proceedings

7:15 p.m.

Liberal

Geoff Regan Liberal Halifax West, NS

Mr. Speaker, if he is against an employer, in this case municipalities, having to pay EI premiums, perhaps it is because he is against the whole program of employment insurance. He is against the idea that municipal employees should have this employment insurance and should be protected from losing their employment and having the benefit of having employment insurance. He is against that obviously, because how else is it going to work?

It is his former party that is always talking about the need to have the EI system more like regular insurance where everyone pays in and if they become unemployed, they receive benefits. How could that be done if all employers did not pay in?

As I said at the beginning, this argument, this question, is completely illogical.

Chief Actuary ActAdjournment Proceedings

7:20 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

The motion to adjourn the House is now deemed to have been adopted. This House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 2 p.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24.

(The House adjourned at 7.20 p.m.)