Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I rise today to speak on this motion. This is not an acceptable proposal, in my opinion, and the Bloc Quebecois will vote against it. A $3,000 basic exemption does not appear relevant, to begin with, for the purposes of the program.
To me, what is more important is the symbol. The fact is that, today, on this last sitting day of the House, we are debating the employment insurance program, when, for three years now, the government has had the unanimous report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development on a complete overhaul of the program.
The work has not been completed. After the members made their recommendations, the government simply blocked them as systematically as possible, thus going against the will of the people, as expressed in the 2000 election.
We will recall that, during the 2000 campaign, a number of elected members in this place, and several of those who will be running again in the upcoming election, made a commitment to undertake a complete overhaul of the employment insurance program to restore its original objective, which was to allow people to have a decent income when they lose their jobs.
Instead of that, this week, the government hurriedly announced three temporary changes. The first change concerns seasonal workers. In regions with an unemployment rate greater than 10%, the current program will be extended by one to five weeks. This means that seasonal workers in other regions will not be covered. They are still in seasonal industries and are faced with the same reality, but they are not getting the same benefits.
In the regions affected, of which mine is one, the workers were expecting the federal government to go ahead with a real EI reform, which would have afforded them real protection, dignity and recognition of the status inherent in the seasonal industry. That is not what we are seeing in the government's proposal.
Especially since the amount allocated for these three measures—they say $125 million or so per year—represents three one-thousandths of the surplus accumulated in the past 10 years. The government is therefore giving back three one-thousandths of the $45 billion stolen out of the pockets of the unemployed, workers and employers to cover the deficit and pay off Canada's debt. It is giving it back to the workers and unemployed—the very people who contributed the most to fighting the deficit. These people did not get tax reductions. When a person earns $20,000 a year, there are no reductions.
But these people contributed 100% of their salaries, because premiums are paid on income up to $39,000 or $40,000. They are not paid on income beyond that—people earning $50,000, $60,000 or $70,000 do not pay. Thus, they have not contributed to fighting the deficit on this salary. Let us admit it: we members of Parliament do not pay EI premiums; therefore we have not done our part to fight the deficit, as the unemployed, the workers and the employers were asked to.
It is absolutely unacceptable that the federal government has now decided to put just three transitional measures into the system in order to bridge the gap until the election is over and try to lull the electorate, but this time it will not work.
The reaction all over Quebec and Canada has been something to see. People thought it was irresponsible and unacceptable. If the government had proposed a real reform, we would not be debating my colleague's motion today. We would have already done all that and we would have a new system.
What is still missing? There is still discrimination against new, young workers and women who return to the labour force after some being out of it for a while. A young person is asked to complete 910 hours of work, while anyone else in a region like mine can requalify with 420 hours, which means that, if the young person has worked 800 hours and tries to get the other 110 hours in Montreal, Quebec City or elsewhere, he or she will not return to his own region. At that point, the region has lost a resource in which it has invested. That is one reason young people leave the rural regions for the cities.
There also needs to be a real support program for older workers. The measures announced this week include renewing pilot projects for training people who lose their job and can be retrained. There are people who cannot be retrained. These are people who are 55 or 56 years old, who have worked 20 or 30 years for the same company, such as Whirlpool in Montmagny, which has just closed its doors. These people systematically paid their premiums and never collected employment insurance. At the end of the day, they are told they will get 40 weeks of employment insurance and that is all.
When they see that a $45 billion surplus was accumulated in the fund, they think that it does not make sense, that it is unfair and dishonest of the current government simply to have transformed their employment insurance system into payroll taxes. They are unhappy about this.
Seasonal workers are also unhappy. The protection they are being given is like a slap in the face. It is transitional and temporary and will benefit the government during the election. Basically, the government is telling them that it is going to try to buy their votes. People will not be bought by these motions, especially since they are not significant.
Someone who works 420 hours—in other words, 35 hours a week for 12 weeks—will receive 21 weeks of employment insurance. With the measure and the transitional measures, that person will get 26 weeks. The number of weeks calculated at the start, plus these 26 weeks, does not allow the person to put in his time or to look for work the following year and still continue to have an income. There will be 10 to 15 weeks a year during which he will not have an income. This is unacceptable.
All this because we have a system that the government has set up to suit itself. People who contribute to the program are employers and employees. The government does not pay. So, when I see a Liberal colleague, as I did earlier, who says that he is opposed to the Conservative member's motion, I think that this is a little hypocritical.
Indeed, the federal government, which has not been contributing to the program since 1990, has made extensive use of it to build up the surplus. This is why today, when we should have changes or improvements to the program, the government cannot make up its mind. It would have to get the money from elsewhere because it has already spent all of it to pay off the debt.
This system was implemented under the finance minister, who is now the Prime Minister. He does not intend to loosen his grip. For that grip to loosen, the people will have to send a very meaningful message in the next election. They will have to elect as few Liberal members as possible to get across the message that citizens are not being fooled. They do not accept the proposed changes. They are trivial, inadequate and do not provide what was needed and expected.
It is not true that, in a government which has all the bureaucratic means available, the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development could not evaluate the 17 recommendations and put on the table the ones that it would have really liked to see implemented. This would have enabled us to examine the whole issue and have a truly reformed program. I think the public will judge the government's behaviour harshly.
On this last day of sitting, I invite those who are listening to us to question their member of Parliament on this issue, to put questions to the candidates during the election campaign and to see which ones are proposing the measures that they really want. When they elect their member of Parliament, will they be sure that this person will represent their riding in Ottawa, as opposed to representing Ottawa in their riding?
I think that people are fed up with candidates who get elected and who, the next day, begin to parrot the ideas of a government that does not want to change anything. We had this with the 1993 reform, when Prime Minister Chrétien had pledged to change the program. We also had it in 1997 and in 2000, with the promise to set up a parliamentary commission. Today, there is still nothing that has been done about these commitments.
I am sure that, after the election, the message will have been heard. The next Parliament will see real employment insurance reform. That is my wish for that system, which makes Quebeckers and Canadians proud, among other things, and was put in place to ensure the social pact between resource regions and industrial regions is maintained, to become again what it was intended to be.
The government must stop dipping into the surplus in the EI account and the EI contributions to pay off its debt. It is essential that the election result fundamentally change the current situation, where the government is unable to meet its commitments.