Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to also join the debate on the third reading of Bill C-278, the bill that calls for EI sickness benefits to be extended to a maximum of 50 weeks.
Our new government understands the importance of supporting our friends and neighbours who face illness and disability. Canadians have seen our budgets. They appreciate the action that their new government has taken for them over the past 15 months. They know who is standing up for them.
They have seen us introduce the new registered disability savings plan to help parents and others save money to care for family members with disabilities.
They have seen a Canada disability savings grant of $1,000 annually to promote the financial security of children in lower income families.
They have seen a $30 million investment in the Rick Hansen “man in motion” Foundation, which will help transform research into actual benefits for Canadians living with spinal cord injuries.
They have seen a $45 million new enabling accessibility fund to help Canadians who are recovering from or dealing with challenges to participate in their communities.
That is the new government's vision for meaningful ways to improve EI. The Liberals, by contrast, including the sponsor of Bill C-278, voted against each of these measures.
While the member who sponsored this bill is no doubt well-meaning when he comes to ask the House for support, I am not sure where his support went when it came to supporting the same people through several of this government's budget initiatives, which I have just outlined.
Like me, many Canadians may also wonder why he and his Liberal colleagues never did a study, passed a motion, or proposed this legislation in the 13 years that they were in government.
However, the Liberals' touch and go interest in sickness and disabilities and their spotty record alone are not reason to question this bill.
Canadians want to know how effective a new benefit will be. Is it suitable for the problem? Is it appropriate for the benefit to come from this revenue source? Canadians want to know what assurances are being offered that the benefit and the revenue source are sustainable.
When the Liberals were on this side of the House, effectiveness and sustainability were principles to which they at least paid lip service. With some programs on their watch, however, they low-balled estimates of cost. and later Canadians were left holding the bag after costs spiralled out of control.
Canadians know that our concern is not about questioning a gap that exists for some. It is about finding the right solution. It is about affording the right solution. It is about sustainability.
What is the vision of the Liberals and the opposition? It is a bit of a patchwork and not really much of a vision at all.
The Liberals would have Canadians think of and look at the bill as a one-off reform to EI, yet they have voted with the NDP and the Bloc to support several EI bills. That is their true package of reforms.
The cost of the three EI bills they have proposed as an alternative to our vision would add $6.2 billion in new annual costs to implement them. That amount of $6.2 billion in new annual costs would bankrupt the fund in very short order.
How much time and study did the Liberals, the Bloc and the NDP put into making sure that these new costs were warranted and that the benefits would address what they were intended to address? It was a little over an hour of study per bill, plus about an hour each for clause by clause review. That works out to over a million dollars of new spending per second of consideration by the committee.
Canadians expect their elected representatives to have a little more respect for them and the public's money. On this side of the House, that is what we do, and so it is that we remain ready to support worthy initiatives and solutions.
Bill C-278 proposes a solution. It remains to be see whether this is the right solution coming from the right program. It remains to be seen whether it is affordable. It remains to be seen if it is sustainable. We may be ready to sign on if the member Sydney—Victoria provided government with answers to the questions the Canadian public has about his proposed solution.
Canadians are wondering if EI is the right program to expand for this new benefit. It is simply not enough to eyeball the fund's surplus and suggest that it drive a solution. Solutions need to consider the Canadian public interest. They should determine whether the need is limited merely to those who pay into EI or if it is broader, and I do not suppose that all members were able to review the transcript of the committee's proceedings at clause by clause review.
One of the fundamental shortcomings of expanding EI for the new benefit identified is it does nothing for a vast number of new Canadians. New Canadians disproportionately start their own businesses rather than being employees. They and others who are entrepreneurs run their own businesses and do not pay into EI. Why not a plan that helps them, too?
In fact, the solution the bill proposes stands to make things worse for some new Canadians. The private health and life insurance that they are able to purchase depends on a stable relationship with public insurance. Bill C-278 introduces a major change in the relationship between public and private insurance. It does so without any analysis of the impact being offered.
Will private insurers, which often cover a higher percentage of wages and for longer periods, cease to offer products that are used by the new Canadians and other entrepreneurs as a result of Bill C-278?
The House just passed Motion No. 243, which proposes that the human resources committee do a study of CPP disability this fall. Ought not this program, which is more broadly available to Canadians, be considered as one way to catch those who do not benefit from an EI program? Do Canadians not deserve a chance to reflect on their options, be consulted and provide their input?
EI sickness benefits have been structured to complement a range of other supports available for long term illness and disability. These include benefits offered by employers, private coverage held by individuals and the long term disability benefits available under the Canada pension plan and provincial programs.
However, there was no study, so no consultation and no answers for new Canadians, who the government wants to welcome and encourage to come here. There were no answers for all of us who may be called upon to fill the space that may be vacated by private insurers whose richer benefit programs are rubbed out.
Canadians are also asking about cost. Without deciding whether EI is the right program for this new benefit, how much will Bill C-278 cost?
During his appearance at the human resources standing committee, the member for Sydney—Victoria testified that the bill would cost approximately $250 million a year. Estimates from the department, however, suggest it would be more like $1.05 billion a year, four times the member's estimate.
Canadians will still recall that numbers were never the Liberals' strong suit when they were government. Now that they are opposition, not much has improved.
The discrepancy between $250 million and over $1 billion raises more questions than it does answers. Where did the member get his numbers? What did the human resources standing committee have to say to reconcile the huge and costly difference? Nothing. At the end of the day, the discrepancy went unanswered.
The member and the opposition, which is supporting the bill, are so quick to support an idea, which is long on good intentions, that they are forgetting public trust requires us to do due diligence.
Canadians made it clear in the last election that it was not acceptable for their government to be sloppy with public funds. They are tired of well-intentioned programs running out of control.
Canadians continue to have some questions about this bill, which have not been answered by the member for Sydney—Victoria. They have not been answered by those who are supporting the good intentions of the bill.
It is precisely because the duration of sickness benefits is such an important issue for all Canadians that our government believes this matter deserves very careful consideration. It is because it is important that we want to find a solution that is sustainable, smart and effective.
Members may in fact recall that Conservatives on the human resources committee supported the notion of studying the potential extension of EI sickness benefits, as proposed in the February 2005 HUMA report.
As Canada's new government, we acted on that by asking officials in the Department of Human Resources and Social Development to gather the facts and evidence that would inform us all in how to build the right solution. Their work in this regard is underway.
The member for Sydney—Victoria and the opposition are putting the cart ahead of the horse. They are not looking for the facts from the department. They passed on Motion No. 243, presented to gather the facts themselves. The opposition did not want to listen to any of the people who helped contribute to the public and the private insurance programs.
Let me tell the House what we do know about how the current maximum 15—