Mr. Speaker, it is with a great deal of anger that I rise today to participate in this debate. In order to prepare my remarks, I went over several speeches I made in the House in 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1997.
The motion introduced by the Bloc this morning is quite moderate, compared to the drastic cuts the Liberal government made to the unemployment insurance plan. That is what the plan was called, and should still be called, until the government, under the then finance minister and now Prime Minister, decided to make cuts that were and still are drastic, and that had a devastating impact.
These cuts have an impact on those who have no employment security, those who do not have the means to buy stocks and generate a high income the way others can.
The unemployment insurance plan was there for more people and it was the only support workers could get while they tried to land another job or waited for their plant or business to reopen. That is the real raison d'être of the unemployment insurance. It is meant to be a bridge between jobs.
The current Prime Minister is trying to make us cry by referring to the fact that, since he is his father's son, he cares for social programs. However, he is the one who, as the finance minister, presided over their demise. Indeed, polls were taken at the time the famous project was agreed upon in 1996 and implemented in 1997, when the decision was made. The polls showed that Canadians and Quebeckers were satisfied and wanted these programs.
However, it was quite ironic to see that, at the time, the human resources development minister was saying that he wanted the reform to make Canadians—he did not add Quebeckers—proud to be Canadians—and he could not add Quebeckers either. However, the opposite happened. This is extraordinary, because, at this time, far from being proud, people know that this insurance program, now called “employment”—even though we had tried at the time to keep the word “unemployment”, because it is true, it does not guarantee employment to anyone, it is the opposite—would not help ordinary people, but make their life more difficult.
We are getting close to the election and, suddenly, the government shows a little bit of sensitivity, just a little bit. Who will benefit from this sensitivity? Seasonal workers. I am not saying that sensitivity is inappropriate; I am saying that it must be real. It must fill the gap, but this is not the only issue.
Some may ask if this gap appeared in 2004. At the time, we experienced the gap, we had seen it the first time with the first reform by the government.
Of course, the government talked about this in 2000, once again, just before the election. Indeed, just before the election in 2000, there was a small reform that removed a few irritants. However, seasonal workers need much more—we do not know what is in store for them and how we could write it—than covering the gap. It must be filled, but much more than this is needed, because they are not the only ones who feel insecure. This is the truth.
I would say that, even with EI, there are not many who have enough money available to be able to buy groceries for five or six weeks, pay rent and so on. The same must hold true for people who earn high salaries.
It is already difficult, the way employment insurance is set up at the moment. So think about how difficult it is without EI. What do people do when they are not getting any benefits? Some say, I know, that they go out and get another job. We know there are limits to that possibility. People go on welfare when they have no EI. They have no choice, but by doing so their status changes. They end up getting discouraged.
I am not going to address the Bloc proposals per se. I support them two hundred percent. I will say, for the benefit of those watching that these are minimal proposals. Quebeckers and those in the rest of Canada need to hear that.
The history of this reform, like the rest of history, tends to get forgotten. People must not forget, however, that if we have ended up with a deficit—the one referred to across the way, against which we must take steps—it is because the Conservative government got the unemployment insurance fund to pay three years in a row for $2 billion worth of “employability” measures, we can call them, at a time of high unemployment. So that makes a total of $6 billion, three years of $2 billion each.
Then, even during a time of high unemployment, when it was found that the jobless rate had gone down somewhat, they were stuck with a deficit to be dealt with. When the cuts were brought in 1997, there was already a $4 billion surplus in the fund. In other words that action was taken not in order to compensate for a so-called deficit, but for fiscal reasons. They wanted the workers, the jobless and small and medium business in particular to pay for the deficit. That was a conscious decision.
On the eve of an election, the Prime Minister is adopting bare bones measures regarding seasonal workers because they are taking to the streets. And so they should. Does the Prime Minister think he will make us forget all this? No. I know one thing: during this election, if it ever comes, I will keep talking about it. The reform has changed and upset the lives of many young men, women, and immigrants who are entitled to work. It has transformed their daily lives because it has put them in a state of insecurity.
It has also had other negative effects such as encouraging people to work under the table. Why? Because people who work odd jobs for a short term, who think they could never be entitled to benefits, are better off not paying the premiums. Employers do this despite the heavy penalties.
One of the worst things about this reform is that it has forced all workers to pay premiums starting from hour one. Therefore, many do not qualify to receive employment insurance and are also not entitled to a tax credit because they have not paid the premium. I am not sure of the exact number, but there must be a way to find out. Statistics Canada could find out.
The deficit was paid by low-income workers in a country that wants to come across as progressive. Furthermore, what is the ceiling for the premiums? It is $39,000. I thought it had gone up, but it is still $39,000. Beyond this amount, for overtime and big salaries, no EI premiums are paid.
By hiring people at low wages and, often, by hiring people who are not in the high tech sector but in labour intensive industries, small and medium size businesses are those which, proportionally, make the largest contribution to employment insurance.
In this country, the government made those members of the labour force—because the unemployed are still looking for work—who earn up to $39,000 pay to eliminate the deficit. It is incredible. This has resulted in economic consequences that I cannot measure. An employment insurance program is meant to support employment. This means that when a worker is laid off, he knows that he will get money to bridge the gap between jobs.
I feel the same anger that I had when I was the critic on this issue, but we should feel such anger all the time, because our fellow citizens in each and every one of our ridings, whether in Montreal or elsewhere, whether in cities or regions, have been adversely affected in their daily lives by this legislation.
I already said that this reform should be a counter-reform because, usually, a reform improves the situation. Be that as it may, since this reform was made, the Bloc Quebecois has worked tirelessly to protect workers, the unemployed and small and medium size businesses. The latter are the ones that paid a heavy price in the fight against the deficit.
The government made some minor reforms in 2000, just before the election. I was looking at the speeches, and we debated this issue in September and in October. We could even talk about mini “reformettes” by putting two words together. Now, the government is once again trying to sugar coat things with another “reformette”, which is not even worthy of the name. True reform is nevertheless essential for those who are facing the gap. It does not make sense that these people have had to face the gap all these years.
I hope we have an election as soon as possible, because we will then be able to discuss with our fellow citizens this so-called employment insurance program, which is not even an unemployment insurance program anymore.