Madam Speaker, I am happy to have the opportunity to speak to the motion today. In the last couple of weeks we have had two or three opportunities to talk about employment, employment insurance benefits, worker training and today more specifically about older workers in Canada. I also had the opportunity to work with the member for Chambly—Borduas on the human resources committee and I am well aware of his interest in this area.
I think we would all agree that while the federal government is dealing with job opportunities for all workers in Canada, the employment insurance program is probably one of the most important mechanisms we have to address these issues. In committee over the past few months we spent a lot of time talking about the future of EI and about changes that need to be made to the program to ensure that it is doing the job it is supposed to do and, quite frankly, to ensure that the government is not continuing to syphon billions of dollars out of the program.
In committee the three opposition parties agree on several things. The first thing we all agree on is that there should be a separate EI account, that basically the dollars taken from employers and employees to fund EI should be set aside for the benefit of employers and employees and should not be within easy access of the federal government.
Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Vancouver Island North.
The three opposition parties agree that we need to have a separate account. Quite frankly, it appears that government members do not wholeheartedly support that idea and if they do it is quite grudgingly.
Second, I think all opposition parties agree that the government should make more of an effort to actually respect the intent of the EI Act, which is that there should be a balancing in EI, that the dollars coming into the program should be equivalent to the dollars flowing out of it.
Unfortunately, for the last 10 years the Liberal government has been deliberately keeping premiums high, taking more dollars than are necessary, both from workers and employers, while at the same time reducing payouts. It has not been setting aside those dollars for the future for employers and workers but rather using that money, which is in general revenues, to fund all sorts of programs that the Auditor General makes comments on a regular basis.
All opposition parties agree that EI needs to be brought into balance, and part of that is addressing the premium side and the other part is addressing the amount of dollars that get paid out.
The third point I was recently quite disturbed to discover and one which the other parties do not agree with my party on is that before we can come up with a package of changes that would actually bring EI into balance, I believe we need accurate and detailed costing of those changes. If we are going to change the number of weeks required for eligibility, we need to have accurate information in terms of what that might cost.
The NDP recently had a motion before the House regarding the best 12 weeks. The motion did not refer to the best 12 continuous weeks. I guess arguably it could be the first week, the fifth week, the seventh week and the ninth week over a period of time. For people who work irregular hours, such as six days on and six days off or 12 hour shifts, they would have a checkered income pattern from week to week. I had a concern that there was an opportunity for mischief there. I would have been much more interested in a proposal that said 12 continuous weeks rather than just the best 12 weeks.
We also discussed whether the percentage of income should be increased to 60% and whether there should be different rules in different parts of the country based on local unemployment rates.
I moved a motion in committee requesting that the Department of Finance develop an econometric model to allow us to assess the impacts of these proposed changes, and not just on a one off basis, but that if we were going to introduce five or six significant changes at the same time, we would need to know what the actual interactive result of that would be and what the total cost of that would be.
I am confident that those estimates can be generated. I think it is prudent and responsible for all members of our committee, regardless of what side of the issue we are on, that we should be not only requiring but actually demanding detailed information in terms of what the costs are going to be.
That is why, quite frankly, I was shocked that none of the other parties suggested or supported my motion at committee to get that information provided for us.
Where my party parts company with both the Bloc and the NDP is that we think there should be a balanced approach where we look at the premium side as well as the payout side. We think that EI premiums are essentially a payroll tax.
I think everyone in the country recognizes that payroll taxes are job killers. Even the current Prime Minister when he was finance minister recognized the point that as we increase payroll taxes we eliminate jobs across the country. Obviously, if that is true, the corollary is true as well which is that if we reduce payroll taxes that actually encourages job creation.
We as Conservatives think that side of the equation bears closer scrutiny. There is a large surplus, a notional surplus of $46 billion. Over the past five or ten years the government has taken $46 billion from employers and employees. Every time the government takes a couple of billion it throws a chit into the notional account. Basically, it is an IOU $1 billion or IOU $3 billion.
I have serious concerns that the government is trying to figure out a way to wiggle out of that commitment. I believe it will try to establish some new fund and then argue that because it actually owes the money to itself that it does not really owe it to anyone.
We have heard the parliamentary secretary for the minister argue in committee that to cut a cheque for $46 billion and deposit it in this account would cause massive chaos in the Canadian economy and in the government finances, seeming to suggest that we ought not do that and that it would be easier if we just kind of walked away from that contribution.
I reminded the parliamentary secretary on those occasions that the money did not belong to him nor to the Government of Canada, that it actually belonged to the workers and the employers. I said that it was their money and that it should be set aside for their benefit.
If, quite frankly, repayment of that money into a separate EI account causes there to be a large amount of money in that account, perhaps in the short term a contribution holiday would be the right way to approach this. Would it not be great if there were dollars set aside so that both employees and employers had a holiday from paying premiums for the next two, three or four years and were able to actually keep more of their own money?
I think there are a variety of ways to deal with rebalancing the EI system. We have two debates going on here. One which, in my opinion, is somewhat dishonest, and that being that we cannot put the money into that account. I think that should happen.
The second debate, which I think is an honest debate and one which we may agree to disagree, is how we are going to find that balance. Are we only going to increase expenditures from the program, which it appears to me is the interest of both the Bloc and the NDP, or are we going to look at the expenditure side and try to balance it with some changes on the contribution side as well and find something that actually works, not only for those people who have lost their jobs but that it continues to work for those people who continue to have jobs or for those people who continue to create jobs in Canada?
I think that is where we are and where we should be. My sense and my challenge to my colleagues in the opposition parties is, first, let us work together to get this separate account established; second, let us work together to force the Liberal government to keep its commitment and to actually return the dollars, the $46 billion, that have been taken from workers and from employers in Canada; and third, let us have this discussion and get the information in terms of how much different changes will cost, and then we can have discussions on what the right balance will be.
A very important part of that discussion obviously would be older workers and older workers in areas with no opportunities. For that reason I am happy to support the motion today. However this is only one small piece of a larger puzzle and we should not lose sight of the first two important points. My sense is that the government would like to get us trapped in these small disputes so it can walk away from its much larger commitment, which is to the workers and employers in Canada.