Mr. Speaker, on behalf of the Liberal Party, I take this opportunity to speak to Bill C-357. The bill proposes some changes to the Employment Insurance Act as it relates to the setting of the premiums charged to employers and employees.
First, employment insurance is a very important program, a program that plays, in my view and I am sure in the view of all members in this honourable House, a very vital role in assisting workers in Canada when they find themselves either unemployed or underemployed. It is a program that supports workers while going from job A to job B.
Allow me to provide a little history to the employment insurance program for the benefit of all Canadians.
In 1934 the Government of Canada established a program that would provide Canadians with a partial income if they found themselves out of work. The Great Depression, as we all know, resulted in millions of Canadians losing their jobs and going through some very difficult times. As a result, the government took action to provide some income security.
The Employment and Social Insurance Act of 1935 paid minimum weekly wages based on earnings to certain unemployed people. It was in 1940 that Parliament passed the Unemployment Insurance Act, during a period when income security was not an issue. For example, we will recall that the war created well over a million jobs in our country at that time.
The program back then was meant to support, on a short term basis, individuals who were in between jobs and was primarily targeted the so-called blue workers. Since that period, employment insurance has become one of the major foundations of Canada's social safety net.
Two major changes occurred in the system, once in 1971 and again in the mid 1990s. In 1971 the program became more universal, with a wide range of occupations falling under its legislative scope. For example, further maternity, sickness and retirement benefits were added to the program. Premiums were reduced and benefits were increased. Prerequisite qualifiers were also raised, while benefit levels were to some degree restrained. At that time, the government placed restrictions on benefits for workers who had quit or had been fired. They were deemed ineligible, except for certain exceptions.
During 1971, the government shifted employment services and benefit costs from its consolidated revenue fund to what was then called the UI account. Although there were some efforts to make further changes to the act during the 1970s and 1980s, it was not until the 1990s that major reform to the act took place.
For example, in 1996 unemployment insurance became known as employment insurance or EI, “employment” meaning let us move forward to get people back into the workforce. Of course there were major changes in eligibility, including an “intensity rule” that reduced benefits for repeat claimants, and adjustments to that clause were made in 2001.
I know, Mr. Speaker, you were here at that time. When I was first elected in 1993, the government inherited a very difficult situation of high unemployment. I am sure you recall that it was close to 12%. EI premiums had been rising consistently. I remember at that time it was pegged at $3.05 per $100. Our country was described as unofficially bankrupt, so we had very little manoeuvring ability.
Later on as the economy got better, as we had eliminated the deficit much faster than we anticipated, economic growth occurred, employment started to unfold and more revenue started coming in because people were working as opposed to us paying out. We were able to look at adjustments as we removed that intensity rule in 2001.
I believe those changes were necessary at the time because of the difficulties that the country had. One was the $48 billion deficit and a $600 billion plus debt that we incurred, inherited from the Mulroney government, the Conservatives.
Earlier today the member for Burlington said that the government was listening to the people. He said, “a government that listens to them”. I think he said that about three times. I always get shivers the moment that someone says to me more than once, “Trust me, trust me”. I do not trust that person. Therefore, when the member for Burlington said on a several of occasions “a government that listens”, it just confirms that it has not listened. Income trusts is one example that I will use.
A short while ago Bill C-269 was before the House, on which we voted, to make some changes to help seasonal workers and to increase benefits in general. We supported that bill, as amended, at committee. I believe that in the current situation we can afford to take a look at EI in general and to see how we can better support all workers.
The comments we are hearing from our constituents, especially our seniors, our veterans and workers in general are as follows. If today our country has been blessed with such high surpluses, close to $14 billion, thanks to the good work that the previous Liberal governments did, it is today that we can take that extra step. It is not a risk. It is today that we have these surpluses and we can look at adjusting these programs.
We have workers in the Maritimes, in the north, in the mining industry who unfortunately and for whatever reasons do not have an opportunity, as some would say in downtown Toronto, to have steady employment throughout the year. This is where these programs must exercise some flexibility. I believe these are the times, when the economy is good, when there are surpluses, we can do that.
As often is the case with members from the Bloc, and I say this respectfully, they always attempt to maintain some kind of feigning sense of relevancy to the House by introducing certain private members' initiatives so they can send them in their householders to their constituents and say, “This is how relevant we are”. That is great. I cannot negatively comment on that. That is their privilege, but it is unfortunate because constituents depend on hearing from their members of Parliament a certain message that has relevancy. In a case like this, they are getting someone's goat going. They are getting them excited, and it is unfortunate.
Let me just point out why I made that statement. The member will know that what he seeks to accomplish already exists, thanks to the efforts and the hard work of the former Liberal finance minister, the member for Wascana, and the former Liberal minister of human resources, the member for Newmarket—Aurora. These changes were made.
What we did was formalize the EI rate setting process with an external process run by a chief actuary, something the member for Burlington said “We are going to do as a government”. We have already done it, as a Liberal government.
The member for Burlington should, as should all members, read up on what has been done before they stand up, for the benefit of all Canadians. It is up to the chief actuary to analyze the labour trends, the employment levels, the expected payments to be made and make recommendations to Parliament as to the setting of the EI rate. It is set in such a way which we put in place that it becomes revenue neutral, if I may describe it as such.
Let me repeat again for the benefit of the member for Burlington and all other members, that the EI--