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House of Commons Hansard #49 of the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was benefits.

Topics

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11:30 a.m.

Bloc

Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have listened with a great deal of interest to the remarks of my colleague, especially because he participated in the committee discussions when there was unanimous agreement on the need to reform the employment insurance program. I know that at the time, in his party, such unanimity did not come easily, and he made a significant contribution.

I would like the member to explain why there is, today, such unfairness in the employment insurance program. How is it possible that the government has accumulated a $45 billion surplus in the EI fund and yet it lets the unemployed and the workers get poorer and poorer? Why is the government not taking steps to remedy the situation? Why is the government disregarding the 17 recommendations made by its own members? Yet this Prime Minister said that he wants to address the democratic deficit. He has a concrete example that he could follow but he does nothing.

I would like to have my colleague's opinion on this.

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11:30 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative New Brunswick Southwest, NB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate that question from my colleague because it is on the mark. In terms of asking why, if hon. members were listening carefully to some of my remarks earlier, they would have heard me say that one of the reasons why the government has refused to act on some of the recommendations, to bring them to the House, let us say, is simply that it is using the EI fund for general revenues to enhance its financial picture and to create balanced budgets.

As I mentioned at the conclusion of my speech, the so-called balanced budget that the Prime Minister brags about would have taken him six full years to create if he had not had that surplus in the fund. There is no desire by the Government of Canada to change this because it has simply used that fund for its own piggy bank, to the tune of over $40 billion. I think that pretty well answers the question.

In terms of the part of my colleague's question about the democratic deficit, is this not symptomatic of what has happened over the years with this government? Over this 10 year period, parliamentary committees have done a lot of good work. We can debate some of the details within some of these reports, but in general parliamentary committees do good work. They go through the whole exercise of bringing in witnesses, doing reports and all of the homework that goes into parliamentary committees, and doing the job they are focused on, only to find out that those recommendations are never acted on by the Government of Canada.

Here is a Prime Minister who has suggested that something has to be done about the democratic deficit but who in fact has contributed to the democratic deficit. He has refused to act on some of the good work that committees have performed over the past 10 years. Again, that point is well taken. I am glad the member brought up that point.

Actually the ball is in the Liberals' court. They still are the Government of Canada, just for another few short weeks, I hope, but the truth is that the Prime Minister could have done a number of these things months ago and in fact years ago. He has refused to act on some of the decisions and reports that have come out from time to time from various committees.

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11:35 a.m.

Bloc

Marcel Gagnon Bloc Champlain, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for his speech. Since he comes from the maritimes, he knows what we are talking about when it comes to cuts in employment insurance or the difficulties some workers have in getting employment insurance. He mentioned that we should take advantage of the last few days or weeks before the election is called to resolve the employment insurance problem. We have a golden opportunity to do so today.

Can he explain why the Liberal party refused to make this motion, a motion that is highly commendable in my view, votable? We could have resolved this problem once and for all before the election and kept it from becoming an eternal election promise never to be fulfilled.

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11:35 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative New Brunswick Southwest, NB

Mr. Speaker, the question is somewhat similar to the previous question, but the answer is that the government simply does not want to act on it because that would take away a revenue source for the government. Because it is a tax by any other name, is it not? It is supposed to be a premium but it ends up being as a tax. I quoted the Prime Minister from 1994 when he admitted that it was a tax and a drain on the economy. But unfortunately those were just words said by the then finance minister, today's Prime Minister. Those were just words.

The truth is that he is in the driver's seat. He could have done something and chose not to do anything. In fact, in the dying days of this Parliament, my colleague is absolutely right: The Prime Minister is in charge. The buck stops there; it is supposed to. He has the wheels of government in his hands, but the fact of the matter is that I am not going to hold my breath.

If his record proves anything, it is that he is very indecisive. He will not act on this. He prefers to have a steady flow of revenue coming in; not a premium but a tax by any other name. The government is using this as a tax. It is hiding this in general revenues. It would really surprise me if the Prime Minister were to change that in the dying days of his government.

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11:40 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Rob Anders Canadian Alliance Calgary West, AB

Mr. Speaker, we are talking about employment insurance and I think there is one thing about it that frustrates a lot of people. What does the hon. member, my colleague, think about EI funds being milked off the backs of workers, with some people unable to claim for those benefits later on, and the idea that these funds were doled out either to Liberal friendly ad firms or into wasteful practices like the gun registry, which has been proven to be fairly ineffective and a waste of money? How does it make the hon. member fee to know that this money has gone to pay off Liberal cronies and friends?

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11:40 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Let us try to remain relevant, please.

We will hear from the hon. member for New Brunswick Southwest, if he wants to come back to the matter we are discussing.

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11:40 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative New Brunswick Southwest, NB

Mr. Speaker, I think what the member is saying is that there have been huge sources of revenue dollars flowing into the federal coffers and he is not completely pleased with how the Government of Canada has spent that money.

I think most of us would agree with him. We are talking about moneys flowing in, and if we take the Prime Minister at his word, he admitted that the EI premiums have been used as a tax by the Government of Canada. He was calling it a tax that is flowing into government coffers.

When we look at the $2 billion wasted on the gun registry, I think the member's point is well taken. Let us look at the $250 million misspent on the advertising scam, as the Auditor General states. That is the misspending of government money, of taxes that ordinary Canadians pay. I think his point is well taken.

The Prime Minister has a terrible track record of dealing with this mismanagement. As I said earlier, I think that in the dying days of the government we will see very little action on the part of the Prime Minister to change it. It is the status quo. He is not going to rock the boat. It is business as normal, according to the Prime Minister, and I would expect a continued spending spree before the election, which will just add to the waste of taxpayers' money.

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11:40 a.m.

Ahuntsic Québec

Liberal

Eleni Bakopanos LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development (Social Economy)

Mr. Speaker, before I begin, may I say how interesting it is that members never stay on topic on the other side of the House, especially the official opposition.

I am pleased to speak in this House today to the Bloc motion on the need to reform employment insurance in a way that will serve the interests of Canadian workers.

Our goal since we came to power has been to help Canadians adapt to the labour market and the economy, which have evolved over the years. Our intentions have remained the same. Canadians can be proud of this country's strong economy, which has produced more than three million jobs since 1993.

The reforms introduced by the government to modernize the Employment Insurance Act have resulted in improved eligibility criteria and better benefits for Canadian workers. They help Canadians who are too sick to work, those who are not working because they have just had a child, or have to assume family responsibilities or provide care to a dying family member, and they help people who need temporary income support during periods of unemployment.

There is no doubt that many changes made to the act have benefited Canadians, including residents of Quebec. The changes have resulted in everything from improved parental leave to community solutions for the challenges faced by seasonal workers.

We realize that we constantly need to look at ways to improve the system so that it can continue to meet the needs of today's workers and adapt to changing economic conditions.

As we have seen over the past few years, economic conditions can quickly take an unexpected downturn.

That is why the program is constantly evolving based on solid evidence for change. The act has a monitoring and assessment process built in. However, there can be no debate that EI is achieving its primary objective of providing temporary income support to people who lose their jobs and helping them return to work.

In fulfillment of our commitment to address issues raised in the report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, “Beyond Bill C-2”, we have instituted several of the recommendations put forth by the committee. There are hon. members of the opposition who say nothing was done in terms of the committee's report and I would like to outline a few of them.

Among them, we modified the EI program so apprentices need only serve one two week waiting period over the duration of their apprenticeship program. We also made--and this is a very important change for seasonal workers--a small weeks provision a national and permanent feature of the EI program on November 18, 2001. The EI regulation relating to the way undeclared earnings are calculated was repealed in 2001.

Since 1996, the government has brought in some changes in the legislation to meet the changing needs of Canadians.

Yet, we should not forget the many problems we had to address in the previous unemployment insurance plan.

I would like to remind the House that, when we modernized the plan and replaced the previous legislation with a more progressive Employment Insurance Act, many part-time workers were not covered by the EI plan. Many of them were prisoners of the 15 hours a week rule, because employers were giving them the minimum number of hours of work in order to avoid paying EI premiums. When we switched to first dollar coverage, some 400,000 Canadians previously denied the EI benefits became covered.

This important change and other reforms we effected make for a plan that can change at the same pace as our economy and our society.

The variable entrance requirements, for example, make it possible to adjust requirements every four weeks, in each and every region of Canada, according to recent unemployment figures. It means that when workers are laid off overnight, eligibility requirements vary with the regional unemployment level.

Another example of our progress is the way we have responded to the needs of working parents. We extended EI maternity and parental benefits from six months to a full year and reduced the number of hours needed to qualify for the benefits from 700 to 600 hours. In fact, the Province of Quebec has one of the highest take-up rates for parental benefits in the entire country. As well, the entrance requirements for special benefits, whether maternity, parental, sickness or compassionate care, is also now 600 hours of work.

Our primary focus in reforming EI has been on enabling Canadians to acquire the new skills needed for jobs in the knowledge economy. The Government of Canada provides over $2 billion a year to the provinces and territories under EI part II to deliver employment measures to help Canadians find and keep work.

We have worked closely with the private sector and communities, funding a range of learning and skills development opportunities in communities all across the country, something recommended in “Beyond Bill C-2”. For instance, we have worked with regional partners developing innovative strategies that build on the work of local seasonal worker committees established in Quebec and New Brunswick in 2000.

Let me mention one of the projects funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, that is the Labour Market Innovations Program in Charlevoix. The community develops strategies to increase tourism and consequently the employment period for seasonal workers.

Those types of initiatives help upgrade the skills of the work force to ensure that seasonal workers have access to a large range of job opportunities. Up to now, we have invested more than $4 million in projects of this kind.

I would like to point out that since 1996, the Government of Canada has continually improved the EI program to meet the priorities of seasonal workers with an annual investment of more than $500 million. The changes that have been made helped those workers to have access to the EI program and prevented a reduction in the amount of benefits by frequent use. In 2001-02, seasonal workers received about $2.5 billion in regular and fishing benefits, or about one-third of the total benefits being paid for that type of benefits.

At the same time, however, among the many important changes we have made to the programs, there is an increased emphasis on the necessity of a strong workforce attachment. That is why we call it employment insurance instead of unemployment insurance. This serves as a reminder that EI provides temporary financial help to unemployed Canadians while they look for work or upgrade their skills. One of the ways we have reinforced this point is through the small weeks provision that encourages people to take all available work.

Our government will make adjustments to EI if they respond to the real needs of workers in a changing labour market.

Just in case my honourable colleagues have forgotten these additional facts, we have also, and there is proof, eased up the qualification requirements and increased the benefits paid out, as per the recommendations of the “Beyond Bill C-2” report. For example, we have reviewed the clawback provision.

This provision does not apply to those Canadians seeking temporary income support for the first time or getting special benefits anymore. Moreover, the intensity rule has been abolished because it did not increase the employment participation rate. We have also changed the rule for parents who re-enter the workplace after staying home for a while to take care of young children.

I would like to add that we have responded to the needs of workers, and to those of their employers. The employment insurance premiums have been reduced for ten years in a row, from $3.07 in 1994 to $1.98 in 2004. Canadian workers and Canadian businesses will save $10 billion compared to what they were paying ten years ago.

Budget 2003 launched consultations and a new permanent rate setting mechanism for 2005 and beyond. Today, in the human resources committee we listened to the employers who are in fact asking for a 10 year fixed rate.

The results of those consultations are currently under review. As we reinforced in budget 2004, it is our intention to introduce legislation to implement a new EI premium rate setting mechanism that better reflects the 21st century economy.

The bottom line is that these reforms are working and producing results for Canadians. EI is there for Canadians when they need it as a temporary measure.

In 2002-03, close to 1.87 million Canadians received approximately $12.3 billion in benefits. Moreover, according to data, 88% of workers in paid employment would be eligible to benefits if they lost their job. Even more relevant, since 1993, over three million new positions were created in the country, including 640,000 in Quebec, which represents an employment growth rate of 21%. Also, to date this year, in a few months alone, 61,000 full-time jobs were created across the country.

According to Statistics Canada data, general participation in the workforce is now 67.4% and a little better in Quebec, with a 67.8% rate, while it is 61% for women. These are almost record levels.

As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicated, Canada is next to last of all OECD countries for long-term unemployment rate. In 2002, less than 10% of all unemployed in Canada remained without work for 12 months or more.

There is always room for improvement. That is why we have reports from committees and that is why we take the reports that come from committees very seriously. I can assure hon. members of the opposition that we will make ongoing changes as we continue to monitor and assess the EI program.

The Auditor-General has said that the mechanism that is used by the government is actually one of the most competitive in terms of assuring that the system responds to the need. We are determined to ensure that this vitally important social program remains responsive to the individuals and communities its serves, as well as the economy.

However, all members in this place need to remember that EI is only part of the solution. The Government of Canada's priority is to ensure a strong economy that stimulates job creation, and invests in the skills and knowledge of Canadians so our country can be on the leading edge of innovation. We want to ensure Canadians are equipped with the tools they need to capitalize on opportunities in the knowledge economy and to prevent them from having to depend on EI.

I think everyone wants to work rather than collect EI.

Mr. Speaker, this issue demands the commitment and support of all Canadians. We must all work together, with the Government of Canada and our partners, employers and employees, to create an even stronger economy and a better future for all of us.

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11:55 a.m.

Bloc

Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is really pitiful to hear such a speech. It contains a lot of falsehoods. First, we are told that 400,000 more people will be included in the plan. They will be allowed to contribute. Before, they were not. Now, they are allowed to contribute, but if they are women or young people, they will need 910 hours to be eligible. Many of them will never be eligible.

If they are seasonal workers, they will need more hours than before. The government even went as far as curtailing the number of weeks they are entitled to benefits. Next winter, if the transitional measures are not extended, we will be faced with a gap not of 10 to 12 weeks, but of 20 to 25 weeks. Do you know why they do that? To collect surpluses in the EI fund and use them to pay down the debt with the money taken from those in society who earn the least. That is totally revolting.

The parliamentary secretary was at the committee meeting on Tuesday morning. The member for Madawaska—Restigouche, a Liberal, was compelled to denounce her attitude. She was totally closed-minded to the needs of the unemployed and the reality they face. Could she explain why, three years after the unanimous report, the EI plan still discriminates against young people and women who re-enter the labour market, and why no follow-up has been given to the recommendation that self-employed workers should be admissible to the EI plan? How can it be explained?

How can one explain why, regarding parental leave, it took a court decision for the federal government to accept to sit down again at the negotiation table with Quebec? The court said that it was not a federal matter.

How can the government explain why, three years after the report was tabled, it still refuses to make the recommended changes to the EI plan? Is it because there is no money left in the fund because all the surpluses were used to pay down the national debt?

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11:55 a.m.

Liberal

Eleni Bakopanos Liberal Ahuntsic, QC

Mr. Speaker, the only people who are telling lies and distorting the facts are across from us here in the House. We know them, we know the political rhetoric of the Bloc Quebecois. There is nobody...

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Noon

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

The hon. member for Kamouraska--Rivière-du-Loup--Témiscouata--Les Basques on a point of order.

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Noon

Bloc

Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would appreciate my colleague to withdraw the word “lies”. There were no lies. I never used such a word in my speech. You should read the blues, I never uttered the word “lies”.

I demand that the member withdraw the word “lies”.

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Noon

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

One moment please.

I am informed that indeed certain words that were uttered are unacceptable. I ask the parliamentary secretary to withdraw what she has said.

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Noon

Liberal

Eleni Bakopanos Liberal Ahuntsic, QC

Mr. Speaker, I still intended to withdraw them, but let us not forget that, on the other side of the House, someone said, “This is not true”. If a word can be used, another one can ultimately mean the same thing. However, I withdraw that word because I am very respectful of the House and have always been. After all, I was Assistant Deputy Chairman at one time.

As far as small weeks are concerned, I already said in my speech that we made changes in this regard. Yet, the member said that we did not.

Concerning the case that went to court, we launched an appeal because there are constitutional considerations. We are negotiating, at this time, with our provincial counterparts regarding parental leave. We hope to sign an agreement in principle soon. As for the court appeal, it is because there is a constitutional issue that must be resolved at a higher level.

We are not close-minded, and I do not accept that the member says that we were close-minded in committee. No one was close-minded, no one is insensitive toward workers. I think the language has to change on both sides of the House. Perhaps it is the member who started this type of exchange.

On the government side, a committee has already recommended that we look at the issue of self-employed workers. We are open-minded on this issue. No one, on this side of the House, has ever said that we are close-minded regarding self-employed workers. I myself raised this issue before the standing committee of the House.

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Noon

Liberal

André Harvey Liberal Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, QC

Mr. Speaker, I understand why my colleagues from the Bloc would be offended and upset, because the best job in this country is that of a Bloc Quebecois MP. When the government does something right, it is thanks to them, and when—

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Noon

An hon. member

The worst job is that of a Liberal MP with nothing to do.

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Noon

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, but before things get out of hand, I would ask all members to keep their remarks relevant to the subject being debated. The member knows full well that the inflammatory comments he just made will trigger very strong reactions on the other side of the House; I do not think this is necessary at all.

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Noon

Liberal

André Harvey Liberal Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, QC

Mr. Speaker, it will not be as inflammatory from now on because I will be talking about figures. For people who have an extremely sophisticated research bureau, I must say that when Bloc members decide to work on a particular issue, they have great difficulty getting their facts straight.

With regard to employment insurance, everybody agrees that improvements are made regularly and will continue to be made. Some Bloc members came to my riding and talked about a $157 million deficit in the EI fund. We did some research on these figures, and it was in fact $239 million that was paid in the last year for which the financial reporting had been done. As for the softwood lumber issue, it is always the same.

I have the figures for the last 20 years. In Quebec, over that period, there is a surplus of some $13 billion in the EI fund in favour of recipients. And the same applies for the last 10 or 11 years.

We are talking about numbers, and on this topic I would like to ask my colleague if we can also talk about initiatives funded with the employment insurance fund. Let's think about the annual transfers to Quebec and the labour force training programs that have been going on for eight years at an annual cost of $600 million. If we add up the numbers, the total is close to $5 billion. This year, there are also reductions in premiums which amount to $4.4 billion. That is interesting for the 14 million Canadians who pay EI premiums. We support the concept of program improvement and we will continue to do so.

However, I would appreciate my colleagues from the Bloc using actual and verifiable figures for all the issues on which they make presentations. We will also be ready for the election campaign and will come up with actual figures.

I would ask my colleague to explain why a supposedly responsible political party frequently releases figures that were inspired by the Canadian Labour Congress but invalidated everywhere in Canada.

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Noon

An hon. member

It is the government's budget.

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12:05 p.m.

Liberal

Eleni Bakopanos Liberal Ahuntsic, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for his question. Indeed, anyone can juggle the figures.

Still, let us take the example of the Canadian Labour Congress, which said that only 35% of workers qualify for employment insurance. This figure represents the percentage of people who qualify for employment insurance, not the percentage of all workers who still collected benefits.

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12:05 p.m.

An hon. member

Oh, oh.

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May 6th, 2004 / 12:05 p.m.

Liberal

André Harvey Liberal Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, QC

It is always empty rhetoric. Let them all come and debate the issue at home. We will talk about figures.

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12:05 p.m.

Liberal

Eleni Bakopanos Liberal Ahuntsic, QC

As regards benefits, over $3 billion are transferred to Quebec each year. My colleague made the point and the figures are available if opposition and Bloc Quebecois members are interested. They will see that, in Quebec, benefits are equal to premiums.

When the Bloc Quebecois says that workers are paying more than they are getting, it does not take into account all the other benefits, such as parental leave, and the new system that we implemented to give people the opportunity to care for a family member who is sick. We put in place a whole set of measures.

Even though we point out our good initiatives, we know that the Bloc Quebecois is not interested only in helping workers. The Bloc does not want Canada to work. It does not want us to continue to look after workers, because it is only interested in separation and in trying to make the system fail.

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12:05 p.m.

An hon. member

They like to organize protests.

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12:05 p.m.

Bloc

Suzanne Tremblay Bloc Rimouski-Neigette-Et-La Mitis, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to speak today in the debate on the motion by my colleague from Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, which reads as follows:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should propose, before the dissolution of the House, an employment insurance reform along the lines of the 17 recommendations contained in the unanimous report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities entitled “Beyond Bill C-2: A Review of Other Proposals to Reform Employment Insurance”.

I would like to take a few seconds to sort out some figures. I hope that the parliamentary secretary is listening carefully. It is rather strange to see the government strutting out a meaningless figure.

When people lose their job, the first thing they do is to check whether they might qualify for EI benefits. They are told that they have accumulated enough hours and that they qualify. This is the famous 80% or so of workers that the government is talking about.

When we talk about the 40% or so of workers who lose their job and who receive EI benefits, we are telling the truth also. It is the same reality that they are talking about.

In fact, a young worker, for example, cannot qualify if he is let go after having worked 800 hours at a first job. He would have needed 910 hours. With their 80%, they forget these people. And what about the woman who comes back to the labour market and does not have the required number of hours and then loses her job? She is not included either in the 80% the government is constantly bragging about.

The much vaunted 80% has to do with people who qualify for EI. But what about young people, older people, women and others who do not qualify? When one stops to consider what they have really put in place, it is a plan where only 40% of unemployed people qualify for benefits. They should stop saying that it is 80%. That is not the right figure. It is not 80% of the unemployed who get EI benefits; it is 40%. Possibly 39% or 41%, but somewhere close to 40%. So let us stop trotting out that figure, because it is a false one.

For the last eight years, we have been hearing the same old song from the government that does not understand a thing. I remember when Lloyd Axworthy was minister. He is the one who launched the reform. For at least two years, he rose to answer questions put by my hon. colleague from Mercier, who thought the reform did not make any sense and went as far as predicting the problems the reform would bring on. During two years, the minister told my colleague that she did not understand anything, that she did not know how to read and that she had not bothered reading the documentation. He kept saying that for two whole years. That is the only thing he told my colleague.

According to the hon. member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, they are aware of the problems, they realize that changes are needed; some have already been made here and there and they will make some more. But that is not what he used to say when he sat on this side of the House as a Conservative. He thought the reform brought forward by the Liberals did not make any sense.

We can only hold people hostage and play them for fools for so long. This is probably the last time I have the chance to speak in this House. So, please allow me to thank each and every one who helped me do the work I really enjoyed doing for the last 11 years.

However, the Parliament of Canada needs to come up with answers for the people. Whether the government is red, blue or any other colour, it needs to respect the people and stop lying. There is just so much we can take. Things are getting out of control. The employment insurance reform is a complete disaster.

During the 2000 election, I remember quite well the member for Bourassa, president of the Privy Council and the member for Outremont, who was then a minister, traveling across Quebec and saying: “Please, stop your demonstrations, do not demonstrate. We will take care of you after the election”. We had to wait to be on the eve of an election again for this government to decide to take care of those workers who have lost their jobs. This is nonsense. We are fed up with this system. People are fed up.

During the next election, people will send a clear message to the Prime Minister. In Quebec, at least, they have understood. I hope that in the rest of Canada people will also understand that it makes no sense to be governed by arrogant and incompetent people who line their pockets and empty those of the public. They are the ones who force people into unemployment, into a gap situation and who say that they will make small reforms and that they have already made some, as the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord was saying. This is truly an aberration...