Mr. Speaker, I would like to put a few comments on the record. I most likely will not take up the full 20 minute allotment.
I will begin by talking about the Conservative Party position on the employment insurance program. Obviously, we support it. We want to make sure, as I think most of us in the House do, that the program provides adequate income protection for Canadians in the event they lose their jobs. Simply put, the program is supposed to be about protection for Canadians when they lose their jobs.
It often is unfairly identified as a social program. It is not a social program. We pay premiums. It is an insurance program, which is what it is supposed to be.
The old expression that has been heard around this place for many years is that the best social program is a job. I guess most of us hope that we never have to use the protection provided under the EI system. We all want to be productive and working but, unfortunately, sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men go astray and we find ourselves unemployed. In fact, after the election probably a few of us will find ourselves unemployed. Hopefully, Mr. Speaker, it is not me or you or any of our colleagues but I guess that is the reality of this job of politics. We take our chances in the marketplace every three or four years or so.
I want to make a few points on this issue and on just how disingenuous the Prime Minister has been in terms of reforming the EI system. The track record of the government is not very good on this. In fact, as we stand here today the surplus that has been built up in the fund is in excess of $48 billion. I will to explain the term “fund” more clearly later on.
What that money means is that the Government of Canada has paid out less than what it has taken in to the fund. That is the simple arithmetic. In other words, the government has paid out benefits but the income that it has received from that fund, the premiums, have exceeded those benefits by $48 billion. In other words, there is a $48 billion surplus generated by the EI account, those premiums that you, Mr. Speaker, and I and every other working Canadian are paying, as well as employers.
What we have suggested, and I think most Canadians agree with us, is that we are paying too much in premiums. The numbers speak for themselves. That is how the $48 billion surplus was generated. The Auditor General has reported on this as well.
Where the Prime Minister is disingenuous is in the fact that he is using the EI surplus, because there is no such thing as a fund. I wanted to explain that for the listening public. There is no such thing as a fund. Basically those surpluses go into general revenues.
What did the Government of Canada do with those surplus funds? Simply put, it spent them. Many of the Prime Minister's projections and the boasting that he often does in the House about his management of the economy when he was finance minister, he would not have anything to brag about if he did not have that surplus.
I will point out some of what the Prime Minister said in the past on this when he was the finance minister. When the former finance minister, now Prime Minister, spoke in the House on March 10, 1994, he stated:
--the Minister of Human Resources Development was able to announce through the budget that we were reducing unemployment insurance premiums which are in fact a tax on jobs.
The Prime Minister admitted in the House on March 10, 1994, that it was a tax. He went on to say:
We have begun to attack this cancer on job creation in this country.
Over the years we have had to force the Prime Minister to reduce those premiums that we all pay but they have not been reduced enough. The chief actuary of the fund has told us time and again that the rates could be reduced even further. If we point to that very high surplus in the fund, the $48 billion, it tells us that the government has been using the EI fund, not as an insurance program but as a tax to get more money out of the hind pockets of average Canadians. That is wrong. The Prime Minister could have done something about that over the years but did absolutely nothing.
The interesting thing is that to keep the EI surplus growing, because the government did not want the surplus to shrink as it would impact on its financial statements, it used the surplus to enhance its numbers. However, to keep the EI surplus growing, Chrétien and the former finance minister introduced Bill C-2 after the 2000 election to suspend the rate setting requirements of the Employment Insurance Act for 2002-03.
The act, by the way, requires that the premium revenue cover the cost of the benefits over the business cycle and that the rate levels be relatively stable. The Auditor General concluded that premium rates exceeded the maximum range suggested by the chief actuary for 1998 through 2001 and that the rates for 2001 and 2002 were inconsistent with the intent of the EI Act.
The Auditor General is the person who the Liberals like to attack. We all know about the work she did on the ad scam and how some Liberals attacked her at committee suggesting that her numbers were wrong and that their numbers were right. The Auditor General reported that $100 million had basically gone missing or, as some people have said, stolen, or was given away to some of the Liberal-friendly ad firms. The Auditor General, of course, has stood by her assessment of what went wrong, much to the displeasure of Liberal members, I might add.
The Auditor General has identified some of the weaknesses in the EI system. I will quote some of what she had to say in her 2003 report on the EI system, which, as we all know, is run by HRDC. At that time she talked about documents that should have been on the floor of the House of Commons. In other words, she said that Parliament should have been aware of what was going on in that fund. She stated:
Parliament is not given the full picture of the service's performance.
She went on to say:
HRDC uses three documents to report to Parliament.
The Report on Plans and Priorities presents HRDC's planned results, while the Departmental Performance Report presents and explains actual results. The Monitoring and Assessment Report (MAR) is required by the EI Act and presents various information on the EI programs.
In our view, these reports have not given Parliament the full picture of the service performance of the EI Income Benefits Program. They have not described important performance issues, such as the uneven speed and quality of processing claims across the country.
Currently, HRDC reports only national averages for key measures, giving parliamentarians only a very broad view of performance. For call centres, it reports the percentage of calls answered by a service representative within three minutes. But it does not report the larger percentage of calls that cannot get into the queue. It also does not report how it plans to meet its service targets in all areas of the country.
In other words, there is some failure within the department, but also a failure by the department to bring this to the floor of the House of Commons for closer scrutiny.
She recommends that:
Human Resources Development Canada should report measures that better capture service performance in sufficient detail to meet the information needs of parliamentarians. The Department should describe plans to meet performance targets when required.
Again, it is a veil of secrecy by the government over programs that we have some legitimate questions about. So when the government is suggesting changes to the program, I think we require full and open accounting so that we can discuss what those changes might be. If we do not have the proper information before us, it is pretty hard to make intelligent choices.
The Auditor General goes on in her report to refer to the surplus, which I have already mentioned. Again she follows up with a recommendation for a more complete picture for Parliament so that some of these decisions can be made in the proper context. This is really what it is all about: some accountability by the Government of Canada on a program that from time to time is legitimately questioned by Canadians, not only the recipients of the program but those who are still working and paying into the program.
I think the government has to listen to some of the recommendations that are being brought forward on the floor of the House of Commons and has to consider some of them before it starts tinkering with the act. I think it is incumbent upon the Government of Canada to listen to the opposition and to provide us with the information, so that, again, when those choices are made and those policies are brought forward, we can discuss them with some level of knowledge.
I will leave it at that. Again, one of my party's biggest concerns is the fact that the government has used the fund for the wrong purpose. It has used it to enhance its financial position. The government would in fact be $48 billion poorer. It has used this fund to enhance its financial position.
Therefore, on the debt repayment that the Government of Canada often brags about, we could question whether it would have been in a position to pay down any debt without the surplus that was generated in the EI fund. The numbers again speak for themselves. In fact, the Government of Canada's balanced position would have taken about six years longer to achieve if it had not had the excessive premiums being generated by the EI fund going into the piggy bank.
Now I will read to the House from some of the information I put together earlier this morning. By applying the EI surplus in this manner, the Prime Minister hid the true deficit-surplus situation of the government from Canadians.
Thus he was able to tell Canadians that the books were balanced as early as 1997-98. In actual fact, without the application of the EI surpluses to official figures, the government would not have been in the black until fiscal year 1999-2000.
In other words, as I mentioned earlier, it means that the finance minister, today's Prime Minister, would have taken a full six years more to balance the budget, not four as he claims.
We are estimating that the EI surplus this year will again add about $2.4 billion to the total. We could easily be looking at a surplus in that fund, generated over the years, in and around $50 billion this year.
I will leave that for my colleagues to consider. I look forward to any questions and responses they might have.