Mr. Speaker, in May I rose to speak to important issues put forward in Bill C-357, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act, but unfortunately we ran out of time. I would now like to take the opportunity to finish what I have to say on the bill.
From the outset, let me state that the government supports the principles behind the creation of a separate EI account, but there are many aspects of the bill that we cannot support.
On Tuesday, the Speech from the Throne outlined the government's priorities going forward. Rest assured, the changes to the EI program to make it more responsive to the needs of Canadians is one of those priorities.
I note the opposition has proposed several changes to the EI program during the course of this Parliament, often without supporting evidence or clear objectives on what the proposed changes were supposed to address. This is not something in which the government will engage. We will only put forward measured changes backed up by evidence and supported by Canadians who pay for this program with their hard-earned money.
It is important to get these things right. Canadians depend on us to ensure that the EI system remains a system, one that is effective, sustainable and reflects the needs of all who need it. The proposals put forward here put the future of the EI system at risk.
There is a reason we need to have a debate on a separate EI account today, and it is simple. It was mismanagement by the previous Liberal government and it was allowed by the Liberal government over a period of 10 years, a $51 billion surplus to accumulate in what many in the House have called the EI account.
The $51 billion was not government revenue. It was the wages of workers and the contribution of employers. We have always maintained that these were supposed to be used for benefits or premium reductions. Instead it was used for program spending in countless other areas and some of it was lost to fiscal mismanagement.
During study of the previous incarnation of this bill, Bill C-280, during the last Parliament, my colleague from Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock stated during committee study, “the Auditor General surely did not foresee that the government could continuously and deliberately overcharge employers and workers and allow this massive surplus to build up”, but they did. The Liberals allowed the surplus to grow and they became addicted to it.
Liberal mismanagement comes as no surprise to anyone in the House. We have seen the billion dollar HRSDC boondoggle under the Liberals watch. We have seen a $2 million gun registry turn into a $2 billion gun registry. We have seen $51 billion in workers' and employers' money spent in other areas with no explanation and certainly with no apologies.
As important as the principle of a separate account is to our government, it is nevertheless important that we not look at the EI program in isolation, that the opposition's vision for employment insurance must be examined in its entirety. We must get a picture of what the opposition expects from this program and if it is a realistic vision.
The facts will show that the opposition's vision is anything but realistic. There is currently an incoherent array of 19 opposition private members' bills related to EI on the order paper, with a combined cost of just 10 of these at well over $11 billion annually. This glut of opposition bills exemplifies the ad hoc and inefficient approach to EI reform being proposed by all opposition parties. The sheer magnitude of the changes being proposed to this valuable program leads one to believe that these changes have been proposed for political reasons because all these changes together do not make any sense. Yet the opposition has so far supported them all.
The opposition ad hoc approach to EI reform is telling of a larger problem.
Let us just examine a few of the other bills that the opposition has put forward in this Parliament.
Bill C-269 sought to drastically alter the administration and objectives of the EI system. It proposed a flat entrance requirement, a requirement designed to maximize labour market participation at a time when we had more jobs than people. It proposed vastly expanded benefit terms that were designed to provide a balance between adequate temporary income support and incentives to return to work.
These proposed changes would cost the EI system billions of dollars a year and have not been supported by a stitch of evidence.
Bill C-278 proposed a wide-sweeping change to the EI program by raising the sickness benefits from the current 15 weeks to a maximum of 50 weeks, all this despite the fact that all the available evidence indicates that the current system meets and even exceeds the needs of the vast majority of people who use the system.
There has been no study for either of these bills, which would $4.8 billion annually in new spending on benefits.
We know the people who pay premiums, both employers and employees, have asked for some consideration, especially given this hot job market. They would not get it with either of these bills.
Why does the opposition insist on proposing changes to the program when the evidence does not support these changes? Could it be particularly for political purpose?
I believe that Canadians rejected this type of governance. Almost two years ago, Canadians elected a Conservative government, a government that would restore some accountability to the way things worked in Ottawa.
We cannot and will not make wide-sweeping changes to programs without proper evidence. Without understanding the full implications of these changes, we certainly will not enact these types of changes unless they are in the best interest of all Canadians.
The government will not act like the last government. We have a broad based labour market approach to the EI program. We have aimed our changes at providing opportunities for all Canadians to participate in our healthy and growing economy. This approach is outlined in our economic plan called “Advantage Canada”.
The government has already taken action to address the quantity and quality challenges laid out in “Advantage Canada” by creating the apprenticeship incentives grant as a follow-up to the 2006 budget, working to improve foreign credential recognition and launching the targeted initiative for older workers and an expert panel to conduct a feasibility study on older workers.
We will continue to monitor and assess the EI program. We have made changes to the EI in the past year and we will consider further changes when it is justified.
One of the main reasons we initially advocated for a separate EI account was the previous government's inability to keep premiums in line with benefits.
The EI commission has set the 2007 rate at $1.80. This will save employers and employees $420 million a year. When combined with the increase in the maximum insurable earnings, this is the lowest rate in 14 years, all the while we have acted to maintain and in many instances increase benefits for unemployed Canadians.
We believe this new rate setting mechanism is important. That is why we supported it when we were in opposition.
Canada's new government has shown that we are responsible when it comes to making informed changes to the EI system. The opposition has shown that it is not. I think all Canadians will understand if the government shows a little caution when such broad changes are proposed to a program as important as the employment insurance.