House of Commons Hansard #4 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was afghanistan.


Resumption of debate on Address in ReplySpeech from the Throne

1:20 p.m.


Monique Guay Bloc Rivière-du-Nord, QC

Mr. Speaker, this issue is of particular concern to me personally. CMHC is generating more than $7 billion in surpluses at a time when the government is withdrawing from social housing, discontinuing its financial support in that area. We should be aware of the fact that a family with two or three children may have to wait up to three, four and five years before getting social housing. Imagine how these people are living in the meantime.

I totally agree with my hon. colleague. This government has to focus on the real issues, not on things that turn out to be totally useless.

Resumption of debate on Address in ReplySpeech from the Throne

1:20 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

Resuming debate. Before I recognize the hon. the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, I would like to advise him that he has 20 minutes, of which only nine minutes can be used this afternoon.

Resumption of debate on Address in ReplySpeech from the Throne

1:20 p.m.

Calgary East Alberta


Deepak Obhrai ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to rise to speak on the subject of the throne speech. While the throne speech deals with the subjects of the Americas and Arctic sovereignty, I would also like to state what the Prime Minister has stated on many occasions, which is that the other regions of the world, specifically Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia, are also equally important for Canada and for Canada's foreign policy.

Since the throne speech dwelled on the Americas, I will keep my remarks today to just that region. The Americas are a region of potentially high economic trends and the region is growing faster because of favourable international conditions and generally more effective microeconomic policies.

The regional GDP expanded by an estimated 5.3% in 2006, marking a third consecutive year of expansion above 4%. The past decade has seen real gains in the advancement of economic openness in the region. Most countries in the region have embraced market based reforms and trade liberalization. There remain, however, serious income disparities and development challenges.

Politically, important gains have also been achieved in the Americas. In the past year alone, there were 10 national elections that met international standards in transparency and fairness. At the social level, however, the region remains the most unequal in the world in terms of income distribution. Despite high levels of growth in recent years, large segments of the population continue to be marginalized, and women, young people and members of the indigenous groups and of African descent are disproportionately affected.

At the regional level, the Americas benefit from a network of well established regional institutions. The Organization of American States stands at the centre of this network. The organization has increased its effectiveness in support of democracy, particularly in fielding numerous electoral observation missions with strong Canadian support.

The Inter-American Development Bank is the largest multilateral lender to the Latin American and Caribbean region, surpassing even the World Bank, with loan disbursements of $6.5 billion U.S. in 2006. Other institutions of the inter-American system play a constructive role in addressing key challenges in the region. These include the Pan American Health Organization, the United Nations economic mission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the key inter-American institution for the promotion of human rights in the region.

There is also the Summit of the Americas, the only leaders' forum for the entire hemisphere. The next one will take place in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009 and will provide a good opportunity to engage hemispheric leaders on a number of key issues for the region.

In sum, the western hemisphere has made substantial progress on democratization and economic development. Yet significant challenges remain, including persistent poverty and inequality, which in turn have fueled the resurgence of populist models of governance.

Canada is reinforcing its high level engagement in the region based on serious analysis of both the opportunities and the challenges that lie ahead, focusing Canadian leadership and making a difference. These political and economic opportunities and challenges found in the hemisphere require a multi-pronged engagement. Our engagement is based on the promotion of mutual interests here in Canada as well as the region.

Our approach is therefore based on three interlinked and reinforced objectives. The first is prosperity: to secure and expand our economic interests in established and growing markets in the region. Canada needs to act in support of progressive governments, and leaders in the region who demonstrate that democracy and an open market can deliver the economic benefits and security that people crave.

There are exciting commercial opportunities that can bring mutual benefits of employment and economic growth. Canada is now the third largest investor in the region. This, in turn, is generating increasing demand for Canadian products and services. Since 2003 Canadian exports to the region have risen considerably, more than 75% from 2003 to 2006, compared with exports to other regions of the world at 15.5% during the same period.

With its young population, growing middle class, sustained economic growth and abundant and diverse natural resources, the region has significant economic potential that is poised to bring benefits both to its people and to countries like Canada that develop strong commercial linkages. It is losing ground, however, to competitors like the U.S. and the EU that are aggressively negotiating and concluding new trade agreements.

Canada has benefited greatly from free trade. Trade agreements generate economic activity that contribute to healthy economies and the alleviation of poverty through the creation of remunerative employment opportunities.

Sustainable and equitable economic development strengthens the social fabric's foundation of countries and contributes to a domestic environment where human rights, good governance and the rule of law are respected. Canada is therefore committed to the pursuit of trade liberalization, particularly with partners in the Americas that share our objective of regional economic integration.

Building on the successes of NAFTA and our mutually beneficial free trade agreements with Chile and Costa Rica, FTA negotiations were recently launched with Colombia, Peru, the Dominican Republic and the CARICOM. Efforts continue to conclude the Canada-Central America Four free trade agreement with the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. All of this trade translates into jobs and prosperity, both here and throughout the hemisphere.

I want to highlight why Canada is very much engaged in this. Historically, Canada has been engaged with these regions and we will continue to work with these regions, as I have outlined, most importantly because Canada is also in the Americas and it is important for us to make sure that our neighbours are also prosperous. Prosperity in our neighbourhood means greater prosperity also for Canada, hence the Prime Minister's re-engagement with the Americas. We will continue doing that.

Again, I am very happy to mention that this does not mean other regions will not be engaged. We continue to engage with other regions.

The recent announcement of providing honorary citizenship to Aung San Suu Kyi is one of those moments in Canadian foreign policy that gives pride to all Canadians as we stand up for democratic rights.

Resumption of debate on Address in ReplySpeech from the Throne

1:25 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

It being 1:30 p.m. the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

When we return to the study at hand, there will be 12 minutes left for the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

October 19th, 2007 / 1:30 p.m.


Raynald Blais Bloc Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

moved that Bill C-357, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (Employment Insurance Account and premium rate setting) and another Act in consequence, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I have to say that I feel as though I am in Back to the Future.

In a way, it is as if I were going back in time. I have already had the opportunity to speak to this bill, but the House was prorogued. We had to wait another month for work to resume in this House. That meant that the Conservative minority government did not have to answer certain questions about certain pressing issues that still urgently require attention. I am thinking in particular about the crisis in the forest industry.

I am also thinking about issues that affect my riding, Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, issues such as transportation. All the members took advantage of the extra month off to stay in their ridings. But in terms of the work of Parliament, we lost a month. It is not exactly clear why. It was not necessary to prorogue the House. There was already a legislative agenda. Parliament was already scheduled to resume, and the government had had the opportunity to give its first throne speech. Why give a second one? The people who are watching can form their own opinions. Personally, I have the feeling that the government wanted to buy time and create a diversion. I would even go so far as to say that the Conservative minority government took pleasure in making use of parliamentary procedure.

Now, it is my turn to take pleasure in procedure. For a number of reasons, it gives me pleasure to again raise the issue of creating an independent employment insurance fund.

There is a history to this issue. I also have a history when it comes to this issue, because in another life I was a reporter for CHNC New Carlisle, a local radio station. I was also involved in organized labour.

Indeed I had the opportunity to work in the labour movement for the Conseil central CSN Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine. My radio career lasted about 23 years, and I also worked for a few years in the labour movement.

Socio-economic development was one of the issues that was of particular interest to us. If you look for it, you will find it in certain places. I am thinking, for example, of the recent visit of my colleague from Beauharnois—Salaberry to Murdochville. We saw what is happening with wind energy, but it is not the be all and end all. Wind energy is just one element of what can be developed. And there has to be a maximization of these elements with regard to wind energy.

Members probably know that, over the next few years, that is by 2013 or 2014, several billion dollars will be invested in the Lower St. Lawrence and Gaspé regions.

In fact, there is a question as to the kind of real benefits this will bring in terms of job creation and so on.

There is LM Glassfiber in Gaspé and another company in Matane, but the latter is not located in my riding; it is outside the administrative region of Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine. Apart from that, what is there? Yes, there are wind farms like the one in Murdochville, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been committed, spent and invested. But how many jobs remain in the region? Not necessarily a whole lot. That is why one must be very careful when quoting numbers that may seem very big, especially if they are spread over several years. We have to look at what the real situation is.

We are talking here about unemployment insurance, and I am still using the term unemployment insurance because I feel that calling it employment insurance is just a diversion, a way to lead us to believe that employment is the ultimate remedy and that as long as there are jobs, unemployment will no longer exist.

The bad news is that full employment, in other words a 0% unemployment rate, does not exist; not even in the flourishing economy of certain cities in Canada or in Quebec. For that reason, we can still talk about unemployment insurance.

This leads us to another reality, that experienced by the people in regions like mine or other regions in Quebec. An unemployed person is not necessarily unemployed by choice. Sometimes it is mandatory. I am sure that many people know what I am talking about. Whether we like it or not, tourism, forestry, fisheries and agriculture all provide seasonal employment. It is not the unemployed person who is seasonal. It is the work that is seasonal. The person would like to work 12 months a year, in certain sectors of the economy in particular. Nonetheless, the fishery being what it is, it is a seasonal activity. The same is true for agriculture.

As far as tourism is concerned, people try to extend the tourism season. Unfortunately, in some situations, there is still a long way to go, a bridge to gap between the end of one job and the beginning of another. In other cases, people wait to get the same seasonal job back again and that is why unemployment insurance is so important.

Over the years we have seen two big waves of cuts that have seriously harmed the unemployed and regions like mine. The Brian Mulroney government triggered the first wave. I do not know if people remember it, but I believe the people in my riding remember it very well. This wave hurt everyone's wallets. It did not stop at this first wave of cuts. The arrival of the subsequent government, that of Jean Chrétien, led to a second wave of cuts that hurt just as bad.

During that time, they realized that there was a lot of money in the so-called employment insurance fund. The latest figures from February 2007, show a $51 billion surplus. This huge sum was misappropriated.

The creation of an independent employment insurance fund would prevent this theft from continuing. Because of the various cuts and measures, this theft has left people in regions like ours in extremely difficult situations.

I simply want to point out this sad reality. An unemployed person does not automatically receive hundreds of dollars in EI benefits a week in order to live a great life. It is not like that at all in most cases.

Take the case of a woman working in the hotel industry in Percé, or in another tourist area, where she works as a housekeeper in a motel. She works split shifts, for a total of 15 hours, 20 hours, 30 hours. Depending on the number of guests, the number of hours she works increases or decreases. This type of schedule means that from week to week, or day to day, she does not know exactly when she will start or finish. Obviously, it depends on the number of tourists.

Then, these workers find themselves in need of the much talked about unemployment benefits, which cover 55% of what they earn—we must not forget that it is minimum wage. It is not $17 or $20 an hour; it is minimum wage. At 55%, they find themselves straddling the poverty line.

In most cases, people must find another job or accumulate work hours in order to receive the so-called generous EI. This covers 55% of a relatively good wage, but leaves them struggling.

I will not go into what happens in the fisheries sector.

When people facing these situations see that more than $50 billion has been diverted, they understand. They see it happening, that the wealth is poorly distributed and their situation is not improving. This is why Bill C-357 is so important.

The employment insurance program must be improved. By the way, one of my Bloc Québécois colleagues already introduced such a bill that made it to third reading.

There is also the matter of the creation of an independent employment insurance fund. Why is it important to have an independent fund? At the very least, it could involve three components.

First, there is the whole history which I just spoke about, all the real life factors. We must ensure that the money is not misappropriated. It is understandable that a bit more money is needed here and there. However, we can find ourselves unemployed for one reason or another. It might be because a business has closed. That has happened often in my region. For example, there was a fire at Anse-aux Gascons and workers were faced with a forced closure. That happened in Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Grande-Entrée and in various other places, I imagine, in Quebec and Canada as well. All their lives, these people paid into the employment insurance fund. I feel it was unfair because they should have been helped and not gouged over the years, supposedly to fight the deficit. At whose expense was this done? You know very well what I mean. It was at the expense of the unemployed and regions such as ours. For this reason these people consider it a scandal just like the sponsorship scandal.

Who is pleased with the realization that the fund is doing all right financially, that the money is being used for other purposes and that the contribution rate is constantly being reduced? If we lower the premium rate for someone who works only 15 to 20 hours per week, a few weeks of the year, in the tourism sector, how much will they save? One, two, three, five or seven dollars? No more than that.

An owner of a large business might find the premium reduction interesting—and the employee as well, depending on his salary. That is why the money from the employment insurance fund should not be used for other purposes. That is why we should have an independent fund with a premium rate that would be established by independent individuals, not on the basis of political considerations but based on reality, with consideration for the situation of employers and employees. Three parties would have a say in the proposed independent fund. In other words, there would be representatives for the employers, the employees and the government.

I have the impression that today I represent the large numbers of unemployed in regions such as ours who believe that the unfairness must come to an end and that an independent employment insurance fund must be created.

Just recently, I heard the Conservative government—and I will get back to this later on—say that it will ask for a royal recommendation regarding this issue. This is a roundabout way to avoid creating the independent fund that we are proposing. It hurts me to hear these comments. Personally, given the situation, I would feel bad if I were in their shoes, because they represent regions, they represent unemployed people.

This is why it is important that, ideally, Bill C-357 should get the unanimous support of the House.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.

Blackstrap Saskatchewan


Lynne Yelich ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development

Mr. Speaker, the member spoke about premium rates. He did not really think that the dollar increase to premiums was important.

Manufacturing is very important in Quebec and small business is important. There is a huge constituency of people across Canada who have small businesses. In fact, about 98% of small and medium business enterprises have 500 or less employees and some of them less than 100. These are small businesses. I can see, and I want to ask this member if he can see, what an unfair burden this would be on small businesses?

These are large numbers. He speaks a lot about the industry in big numbers, but what about the big numbers of small businesses out there? There are very many small and medium business enterprises that have less than 500 and some less than 100 employees. An increase in premiums would mean a lot to these employers and employees. That is my question.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.


Raynald Blais Bloc Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the Conservative member for her question, because it allows me to further explain our position on this issue, with regard to reducing the premium rate for businesses.

The example she gave of businesses with 100 employees or less is increasingly less frequent in a number of our regions. I could explain what happened at home, where three major companies, namely Gaspésia in Chandler, Mines Noranda in Murdochville, and Stone in New-Richmond, had several hundred workers, that is 400, 500 or 600, depending on the location. However, these companies are no longer in existence.

Most of the companies that are in operation in regions such as ours are very small businesses. I do not like terms such as small, major or big, because they are businesses nonetheless. However, they may have one employee or 50 or 10. When these people see that the premium rate is set, but then goes down continuously, they ask themselves this question: Is the fact that their premium rate, as employers, is going down such a good thing, considering that their business employs 5, 10, 15 or 20 people? The entrepreneur realizes that there is the clientele on the other side. Unemployed people also buy products. In a way, this is also part of the economy.

They realize, through the principle of solidarity—and that is what you must understand in my explanation—that it is more important to make even a slight improvement to the employment insurance program than to make a minimal reduction in the premium rate. In some cases, the reduction does not have any effect. Real savings are realized by companies with 1,000, 5,000 or 10,000 employees. In these cases, the premium rate may come into play and provide the shareholders of these large companies with a little more money. However, whether we are dealing with a very small, small, medium-sized or large business, it thinks in terms of solidarity.

That is what I would like my colleagues, and particularly my colleague who asked the question, to think about with respect to creating an independent fund. Setting a premium rate solely out of political interest runs the risk of again being a complete mistake. For this reason, the creation of an independent fund, with an independent commission where employers, employees and the government would be represented, would perhaps make it possible to correct this type of injustice.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

1:50 p.m.

Blackstrap Saskatchewan


Lynne Yelich ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development

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.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

2 p.m.


Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank and congratulate the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine for again raising issues related to employment insurance, or unemployment insurance.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development has given us a real history and has berated the House and parliamentarians for raising employment insurance yet again in the House, asking to consider changes. That is our right and our responsibility. In certain regions of the country it is even more acute that those changes be considered.

Consider, for instance, the situation now in Alberta. There is no unemployment in Alberta. They are paying people in fast food restaurants twice what they are paid in most other provinces because they cannot find enough people. These people pay their employment insurance and will not collect any benefits because there is full employment in the extreme.

There are regions of the country where that is not the case. The member has laid out, on behalf of his constituents, his province and the Maritimes, where seasonal industries are a unique challenge for the system. Right now the system does not properly respond to that economic, industrial or business based reality.

We could ask why these seasonal workers do not get another job after that season is over and go into another business rather than another season. We could say that the onus is on them. That would be an ideal solution if there were another seasonal industry in the next season where they could readily get a job.

It does not happen that seamlessly. The reality is people are trying to work hard, trying to make a living and supporting their families and themselves, but there is a disruption and it is a constant disruption.

Maybe the question for the parliamentary secretary to ask of the minister is this. Do we want to pay some attention to the unique situations in regions and provinces of our country, where in fact the options are not as readily available? Do we really want to let it keep going?

Are there some options? Could there be some business development initiatives to create the work in those areas where there will a skilled and ready workforce available for companies that are there? That is the party that talked about the Maritimes as having a defeatist attitude, that they did not want to work. That was the Prime Minister.

I know the Conservative attitude. Anybody who claims EI must be a burden on society, that they are doing it on purpose and taking money out of the system.

This is a rash condemnation of a lot of Canadians who are in that situation. In my own riding a lot of people who collect EI. Also a lot of people pay EI all their lives and never collect a penny of EI benefits in their entire working career. That is a good thing because EI is an insurance program. It is our wish that no Canadian would ever have to draw on those benefits.

The system should be there regardless of where a person lives in Canada, to ensure that there can be some support and assistance to allow people to live in dignity with their family when they cannot get a job.

We also know there are specific cases in the industries that the member raised such as the tourism, forestry and fisheries industries. These are vital industries. Some would ask this question. If they are so vital and if they are seasonal, which means they are in high demand for skilled people at the time when the season is at its peak, why are those industries paying so poorly and thereby reducing effectively the amount of benefits for which anyone would qualify? This is a problem to be addressed.

This bill needs a royal recommendation and it is clear that is not going to be forthcoming from the government. That has already been stated. The other day the Speaker reaffirmed that this bill requires a royal recommendation. It will get the debate, but at the end of third reading debate, the question will not be put, the bill will die and we will have had this discussion.

Every time we have this discussion the member should take some encouragement from the fact that in the Parliament of Canada we are raising again for the interest of anyone whose ears will listen that there are challenges that we can meet.

The parliamentary secretary preferred not to talk about the member's bill which is her right and I respect her right, but to say that it was the Liberals who mismanaged the fund, well there is a commission--

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

2:05 p.m.


Lynne Yelich Conservative Blackstrap, SK


Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

2:05 p.m.


Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Now she is going to argue with me and we will talk about it later.

The problem is that in the years of the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, the EI fund, which currently is in a surplus position, was actually in a deficit position of $12 billion.

I hope the parliamentary secretary will pay attention for a second. The Auditor General told the Government of Canada that this is a program for Canadians that has revenues coming in and expenses going out. It is inappropriate to have that accounted for outside of the consolidated revenue fund, the bank of the Government of Canada, because it is not a fair reflection of the economic condition of the country and the performance of the programs which the taxpayers' dollars support.

Accordingly, the Auditor General told the government that it must incorporate the financial activities of the employment insurance program into the consolidated revenue fund so that we have a fair reflection of the finances. That is how it happened.

The commission that was set up continued to keep track of money in and money out. When there is a surplus, interest is being earned by the fund. It is not money just sitting there for the use of the government.

The commission is charged to do certain things. One is to ensure that there always is at least two years of benefits available in the event that the country would enter into a deep recession. The commission is to assess the trend line of the economy and the projected benefits, et cetera coming in and out to determine how much it can reduce premiums, or if there is an introduction of new programs, take those into account. In any event, the activities recommended by the commission are to bring that EI account into the direction of getting it down closer to the level of the two years.

What has happened? Under the government of Brian Mulroney, EI premiums were scheduled to go up to $3. When the Liberals took office in 1993, we immediately reduced them and they in fact have been reduced each and every year since then by the Government of Canada.

Who would have thought when the U.S. went into a recession that Canada would not go into a recession? Who would have thought we would have the economic performance that we enjoy and the surpluses we have had, because we have had the lowest unemployment in 31 years because we have had a sound growth rate and good economic management? That is a reflection of why the EI surplus continues to grow. It is almost impossible to wipe it out too quickly.

There are ways to deal with this. Members could say that it is in the consolidated revenue fund. If we want to set up a separate account, first of all let us determine whether the Auditor General will be in favour for good accounting reasons and I think that is not the case, so that is not the option. The issue is how to bring it down in an orderly fashion so that it is fair to all.

Again, I thank the member for raising the issue. I think this is one that is clear from some of the statements I have heard from the parliamentary secretary that the government still does not understand from where we came, where we are, and where we are going.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

2:10 p.m.


Denise Savoie NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-357, which is aimed at preventing the government from stealing money from this account that should be reserved for workers. This is a fundamental element of our social safety net that is wearing thin. Yet with important transformations in our economy and with the emergence of new technologies, it is increasingly important to have this safety net, which can help workers move towards better-paying jobs.

It is true that right now, in this country, there seem to be fewer unemployed workers. The figures come from Statistics Canada and other organizations. However, there is much more poverty. It is obviously more difficult to make a decent living in Canada today.

In fact, it does not matter what kind of difficulty people are in, but the government's approach is that people should pull themselves up by the bootstraps. I am thinking of the difficulties in the manufacturing sector and the difficulties in the Maritimes for seasonal workers where hard-working people are having difficulties making the transition to other employment. There need to be other initiatives to help them. Certainly, employment insurance was one of them. It was a fund used by the current and previous governments.

This government, just like its predecessor, has been helping itself to the EI account, and this must stop. According to the new figures from the Department of Finance, there is currently $54 billion in that account, and there is every indication that the Conservative government continues to use the contributions paid by workers to increase its surplus.

Of course we know that it was the Liberals who designed this plan when they were doing their budget cuts in the 1990s. They changed the eligibility criteria in such a way that, currently, only 38% of men and 32% of women qualify for benefits. It is a shame.

First of all, these cuts made to the EI program were not aimed solely at achieving a balanced budget. The government wanted to create a flexible labour market and eliminate uncertainty among workers through a strategy favouring low-cost labour. Many workers were shortchanged by these cuts.

Of course, because of these cuts in the 1990s, several social programs--and this one in particular--became weaker. These programs were of national importance not only for those affected--and that is what concerns me the most--but also because they were an essential part of what binds us together as Canadians.

Perhaps we should take another look at the definition of insurance. When a worker is having major difficulties, when he loses his job, what happens? The government should be there for him, but it is not. There is a group of people in the government right now who do not believe in government. They prefer to go to the private sector for everything. Privatization reigns and according to those people, the market will solve all our problems.

We have to take another look at what insurance is. I just renewed my home insurance and the terms of it are clear. I read that if I pay my premiums and my house burns down, I will be reimbursed. With employment insurance, it is different. Employees contribute for years and when they need it, the funds are not there. They cannot get the help they should in these difficult times. Employment insurance should make it easier to get back to work, to get back to a good job, but that is not so.

In the Speech from the Throne, we see that the government intends to take measures to improve the governance and management of the employment insurance fund. This morning I heard the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development during oral question period say that he did not really intend to meet the needs of the workers. That is worrisome.

The government seems to be in a hurry to devolve responsibilities for workforce training and funding to provinces with no strings attached. In my area we have seen training contracts given to private American companies at the expense of well established effective community agencies that did that work.

I would like to talk for a few minutes about employability, since the Conservative government has launched a study on employability, and my comments are particularly related to the topic of employment insurance. However, I have only a faint hope of seeing the government recognize the Canadian workforce as people rather than as commodities.

The primary objective of all policies surrounding the labour market and employability, indeed the primary objective of our economy, is how the government seems to see the worker. It is time that the labour market worked for the benefit of workers rather than just for profit as it does now.

The key to our success as a democratic society is to treat hardworking people decently and to give them the opportunity to improve their lives. They need a guarantee that employment insurance will be there for them. They need a guarantee that they will be able to access it in times of need as opposed to having doors shut on them.

As we do this study on employability we should look at employment insurance and the role that it could play. We feel strongly that the government should end the clawback of EI for recipients pursuing training and education.

My last words will deal with education and literacy issues. Nine million Canadians do not have functional levels of literacy and yet the government cut literacy programs last year by $18 million. This is an example of where EI could be used for training to improve those skills. I hope that the government will review its position in this important area.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

2:20 p.m.


Guy André Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise here today to speak to Bill C-357, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act. First of all, I would like to congratulate and thank my colleague, the hon. member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, for having introduced and so rigorously defended this bill. He can always be counted on to defend the citizens of his riding. The Bloc Québécois is equally committed to defending the interests of all Quebeckers.

With this bill, we are defending those citizens who are struggling with employment insurance problems. People need employment insurance for all kinds of reasons: because they are facing company closures, because they work in seasonal jobs or because a factory might eliminate certain jobs, for example. People can thus turn to employment insurance. However, for the past several years, this assistance has been reduced. Access to the program has been limited for many men and women in Quebec and throughout Canada. It is shameful. As we all know, the employment insurance fund has accumulated more than $50 billion. Today, we hear it might be as high as $55 billion. This bill is important, because it aims to establish two fundamental principles to meet the needs of workers who must receive employment insurance.

Since I was elected in 2004, the subject of creating an independent employment insurance fund has come up regularly in this House. We have also talked about an independent commission made up of workers to oversee it.

In their speech, the Conservatives said that they supported the idea of an independent employment insurance fund. A short time ago, when they were in opposition, they not only supported the idea of implementing an employment insurance fund, they wanted to create such a fund. Now they support the idea, but nothing is for sure. The Speech from the Throne mentioned a few things about this, but only one thing is clear: the surplus in the employment insurance fund has grown since the Conservatives came to power. They are doing exactly what the former Liberal government did. They should be ashamed.

Even though the employment insurance fund now has a $55 billion surplus, the government is restricting access to it and reducing the eligibility of citizens who work very hard and sometimes under difficult conditions. These people are under a lot of pressure, just as we all are. We are under pressure because of our families, our financial obligations, responsibility for our children's education, and obligations with respect to access to health services that, like it or not, cost money. But we are not helping these workers. We strangle them and bleed them dry, and then we tell them that we cannot help them, we can no longer support them despite the $55 billion surplus made up of their own contributions and those of their employers. That is shameful.

I have been here since 2004, and I have always found it surprising to observe the political games that go on here between the Liberals and the Conservatives. Now that the Conservatives are in power, we are seeing their true colours. They are doing the same thing. They do not care about the less fortunate or people in need in our society.

I listened to the Conservative members talk. The Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities made 22 recommendations to improve the employment insurance system. A number of measures were recommended. My Conservative colleague said that all these measures would cost about $1 billion. Still, investing in people is better than investing in the military. We are talking about a program of military spending. The government plans to invest $17 billion in the military, in arms and submarines, over the next five years. But it has difficulty investing in people in need.

Not only does the federal government have a $55 billion surplus in the employment insurance fund, but it also has a $14 billion budget surplus.

This $14 billion surplus is tax revenue from individuals and companies. What is the government doing? It is saying that it cannot help the unemployed, it is slashing funding for literacy groups and women's programs, it is cutting the court challenges program and it is making it more difficult for people to qualify for employment insurance. Sometimes, seasonal workers need only a few more weeks to qualify for employment insurance, and they have to go on welfare to make ends meet at month-end and year-end. It is shameful. These governments seem insensitive.

What is the purpose of government? To redistribute the taxes and other moneys it collects. The government must be fairer and more just. It must invest in economic sectors that need help. It must invest in people and support their professional development. It must support workers. But that is not happening. We wonder what this government is supporting, exactly. People do not seem to matter to the government. The independent employment insurance fund is proof of that. I hope that this bill will pass at first reading, second reading and third reading and that it will come into law once and for all. If this government has any self-respect at all, it will pass this bill. The Conservatives promised this in their election campaign. They promised to resolve the independent employment insurance fund issue.

It is outrageous that some workers who do not have access to the independent employment insurance fund are also paying too much into it.

It does not make sense that working people who suddenly fall ill—with cancer, for example—can collect only 15 weeks of employment insurance benefits. When people get sick, they have to apply for social assistance because the system cannot meet their needs. That does not make sense.

It does not make sense that someone who works for 10 consecutive months and leaves their job is not entitled to employment insurance, even if they have found a new job and work there for one month. That person is not entitled to employment insurance, even though they have paid into it for a full year. Instead of staying home and relying on employment insurance, they go out and find another job, but the system penalizes them.

There are all kinds of glitches and problems within the employment insurance system. Creating an independent employment insurance fund is crucial, and so is improving the employment insurance system. It is our duty, as elected representatives, to support our workers, especially when the independent employment insurance fund has a surplus of some $50 billion or $55 billion and when the government is predicting a surplus of $14 billion this year. The less fortunate in our society deserve fairness and equality.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

2:30 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired, and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

It being 2:30 p.m., the House stands adjourned until next Monday at 11 a.m. pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 2:30 p.m.)