Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to this bill today. Unfortunately, it is a bill that does not do much to advance the cause of equality between the men and women of Canada, particularly in one aspect, namely the whole issue of Bill C-30 that extends the pillaging of the employment insurance fund.
I think it is important to explain once more how the government managed to misappropriate the $45 billion it took out of the pockets of workers, employers and the unemployed, and then did not have to account for its use of this money.
Between 1993 and 2001, the federal government sucked $45 billion out of the pockets of workers, employers and the unemployed by cutting their benefits. In a report, the Auditor General told the government that what it was doing was contrary to the letter and the spirit of the law. She said it was impossible to have accumulated a surplus of $45 billion and not to have put it back into the system. The law itself provides that the contribution rate is set by the Employment Insurance Commission in response to the needs of the employment insurance system. In other words, based on economic activity, they assess the amount of contributions required to pay for benefits and training. Eventually, over the economic cycle, the surpluses are put back into the system.
For 10 years, the federal government has sucked up the surpluses. It has used them to fight the deficit and to pay down the debt. Today, faced with the Auditor General's remarks, the government is trying to think something up; otherwise, it will be in a completely illegal situation.
So, two years ago, it was decided to draft a bill stipulating that the contribution rate would no longer be set by the commission but by the government itself, depending on its needs. Basically, this authorized the theft, the misappropriation of the employment insurance fund by saying, “We did it for ten years; now that the Auditor General has determined that we are not allowed, we will give ourselves the right, through legislation, to do the same thing by setting what will be the equivalent of a payroll tax”.
This year's budget has just prolonged the abuse. The government initially set itself two years for using this mechanism, and promised us a new method for determining EI contribution rates, a new approach. The former finance minister, the hon. member for Ottawa South, held consultations that ran for one and one half years. This year, when we were expecting a new method of setting the contribution rate, there is an extension for another two years.
The resulting situation is like having one's house broken into. People see it happening, but organize things so that it can continue, by lending it some kind of legal, though not legitimate, status. This is what this bill today is all about.
I see this as even more scandalous than the sponsorships. Of course the sponsorship scandal has a lot to do with ethics. A system was set up so that the federal government could pay for sponsorships with a share going to ad agencies for work that was not done. Then that money ended up back in the coffers of the Liberal Party of Canada. A very well balanced system and one in which the percentages can pretty well be determined: 12% for the agency, and then 10% of that 12% to the Liberal slush fund. So well organized that we can pretty well determine the amounts involved down to the last cent.
This shocks a lot of people, of course. People have trouble paying their income tax, but when we do pay our taxes and then our tax dollars are wasted the way this government is wasting them, that is unacceptable.
What I find even more appalling in the employment insurance scandal is that they fought the deficit with money that belongs to people in our society who are the worst off. Seasonal workers who work 10, 12 or 15 weeks a year have to make up for the other 35 weeks. In the past, the employment insurance system allowed them to put in their time and have enough income to support their family for the entire year. Now, with the new system put in place by the Prime Minister, with his blessing when he was finance minister, we are in a situation where people who work only 10, 12 or 15 weeks no longer receive any income during the winter. That is the reality for seasonal workers who work in forestry, agriculture or tourism. In other regions, this may occur in the summer, but it is the same problem.
Last week I asked the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord about this problem and he said, “Yes, but we lowered taxes”.
Indeed taxes were lowered, but unfortunately seasonal workers do not earn enough in a year to benefit from lowered taxes. They have the pleasure of knowing that they contributed the most to fighting the deficit, but they have yet to see a return on their investment.
While people like us, the middle class, at least had our taxes lowered, those who earn only $20,000 or $25,000 a year did not benefit from this tax reduction. They had to take a hit in their employment insurance benefits. They have had to live with this, and are still living with this, while the government accumulates a surplus year after year.
This year, in all probability, there will be another surplus of approximately $8 billion. In any case, it was $7 billion in January. This is a great deal of money. People who are earning $15,000, $20,000 or $25,000 per year and realize that their benefits have been cut and that the number of benefit weeks has been lowered are unhappy. Often, they have even been disqualified, because the increased number of hours needed to qualify resulted in many people having been eliminated from the system. They have to pay contributions—it is Machiavellian—from their first hour of employment.
Young people entering the workforce must make contributions starting with their first hour of employment. To qualify for benefits, they have to work 910 hours. If they have not worked enough hours, they are told to come back another year, because they are not eligible.
Consequently, young people entering the workforce and women returning to work after several years' absence contribute to the employment insurance system but they are not entitled to benefits. This whole system has long been condemned and is judged by the public as unacceptable.
This year in the budget, we expected the government to say, “The time we can misappropriate funds like that is over. We owe the workers $45 billion, and here is how we are going to pay it back”.
We were not asking them to pay back it all back tomorrow. It took them ten years to steal it. Repaying it will obviously take several years. At the very least, they should give us hope that the system will be able to benefit from this money. However, there is nothing to that effect in the current bill.
That is why I consider this a dreadful scandal. People are having trouble accepting this very harsh reality. It has an impact not only on individuals, but also on regional economies. I have some examples. In the Lower St. Lawrence, when people in the tourism industry have to work more hours to access employment insurance, at some point, they are forced to leave to go work in the big cities. Once they leave, they never come back. The next year, there are job openings, but there is no one to fill the positions.
Consequently, these situations have a negative impact on individuals and regional economies. But seasonal industries are here to stay. In our economy, we cannot limit ourselves to biotechnology and new sciences. Of course, we must encourage the modernization of the economy. But the traditional industries are still present and they allow people to earn a living. They must continue to do so, whether in tourism or in the agriculture and forestry sectors.
At present, people are not getting value for their money. They would have liked a self-sustaining employment insurance fund. If contributors—employers and employees—ran the system, it is certain that the surplus would not be used to pay for the government's general operating expenses. There would be a balanced system.
If the surplus were very large, contributions could be suspended or benefits improved. If there were deficits, contributions would have to increase. It is a standard practice in insurance, but none of this is found in the current budget.
Last year, during his leadership campaign, the finance minister proposed a new way of looking at it. He came to Charlevoix and said, “We will sort out the status of seasonal workers. You will see. I will take care of it”. We saw the results yesterday in this House. It was terrible, but it was very instructive.
A member of the Bloc Quebecois, the member for Charlevoix, has introduced a motion to establish special status for seasonal workers, regardless of the economic region in which they live.
We are asking for this because even if the economy in one region is very healthy, the seasonal workers always do the same number of hours of work. Then, no matter how active the economy is, they cannot work any more weeks. That is what we are seeking to correct.
The bill before us, which implements part of the budget, is unacceptable to me. Yesterday's vote, when the Prime Minister voted against implementing a system for seasonal workers, is a very clear demonstration that he is not prepared to change a single thing in the current system.
Accordingly, I will vote against this bill.