Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to participate in tonight's debate on Bill C-445 as the NDP critic for seniors and pensions.
Let me begin by thanking the member for Richmond—Arthabaska for bringing this bill forward. For those who may have just tuned into the debate, let me just take a moment to remind television viewers of what we are debating.
Bill C-445 would grant a refundable tax credit equal to 22% of the reduction in pension benefits experienced by beneficiaries of registered pension plans, other than trusts, who suffer a loss of pension benefits, normally when their pension plans are wound up in whole or in part. It applies both to defined benefit plans and defined contribution plans.
Without the legalese, what that essentially means is that if a retiree's pension income drops from $30,000 to $20,000, let us say, he or she would receive 22% of the $8,000 lost, which would be a non-taxable amount of $1,760.
This bill is very timely. It allows us to discuss pension protection and retirement security on the cusp of a demographic trend that will see almost one-quarter of Canada's population over the age of 65 by 2041.
For some, as the comments made by the Conservative MPs in this debate have made clear, our aging society presents a policy challenge that focuses solely on the need for cost containment, but for more progressive voices it represents an opportunity to re-examine the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us and to make decisions that protect the public interest instead of the interests of the wealthy few.
At a time when more wealth is being created in this country than at any other time in our history, people in Canada are working longer and harder not to get ahead but simply to keep up. In fact, average Canadians today are squeezing 200 more hours of work out of each year than they did just nine years ago.
While a few people at the top are enjoying the benefits of the current economy, everyone else is not. Sure, we have seen the windfall salaries and extraordinary bonuses of CEOs, but wages for everyone else are essentially stagnant or falling. The middle class and its retirees are falling farther and farther behind.
One of the reasons, of course, is tied to what is happening in the economy. In the manufacturing sector alone, our economy has lost over 350,000 jobs since 2002. The forestry sector is similarly being devastated, yet despite repeated calls by NDP members in this House, the government is refusing even to acknowledge the need for creating a national jobs strategy.
It is absolutely essential that the government sit down with leaders from both the labour movement and business to develop a plan to maintain and build both the manufacturing and resource sectors of our economy. Not only are these jobs crucial for sustaining families, but we know empirically that the highest levels of pension coverage are associated with union membership in those jobs.
About 80% of union members belong to workplace pension plans compared to just under 30% of non-union members. With the overall percentage of people who belong to workplace pensions on a continual decline, it is imperative that we continue to fight for unionized jobs and maintain the struggle at the bargaining table for defined benefit plans. It is the only way to ensure predictable retirement incomes for workers.
What is happening now is not sustainable. I am from Hamilton, so I have witnessed at first hand the economic insecurity faced by industrial workers. Every time a plant closes its doors, the pensions and benefits of its workers are threatened. Anyone in this House who has followed the CCAA proceedings at Stelco will know what I am talking about. Sadly, that is but one of many local examples where restructuring or plant closure has created pension uncertainty for workers.
It is time for the government to acknowledge that pensions are deferred wages. They are not bonuses paid to workers at the end of their working lives. They are part of an agreed upon compensation package for hours worked. That is why I was proud to introduce Bill C-270, the workers first bill, in the House of Commons as my very first legislative initiative upon being elected.
As members here will know, Bill C-270 will ensure that workers' wages, pensions and benefits receive super-priority in cases of commercial bankruptcy. If we really want to ensure that workers can retire with dignity and respect, then we must ensure they have an adequate retirement income. Bill C-270 and a federal, employer-funded system of pension insurance are essential to achieving that goal.
At the root of that bill, of course, is the vision that workers must receive the pensions they have earned. That is what is at stake in Bill C-445 as well. For that reason alone, it deserves the support of all members in this House at second reading.
Yes, there are some areas that merit further examination, but the BQ members who have participated in the debate thus far have acknowledged that and have expressed their willingness to explore those issues further at the committee stage. For example, public data detailing the number of pension plan beneficiaries who would be eligible to claim the tax credit proposed in Bill C-445 are not available.
We do know that in 2003 there were approximately three million members of private sector registered pension plans, of which 73% were members of defined benefit plans. However, at present, no one collects data that would assist us in determining the number of pension plan beneficiaries who may be eligible for this type of tax credit.
Therefore, for the government members to suggest that the cost of Bill C-445 is $10 billion is pure conjecture. I would welcome the opportunity in committee to have them share their detailed financial analysis. I suspect that at the moment they would have no such document they could table.
Conversely, the BQ members concede that the bill may impact more than Jeffrey Mine and Atlas Steel in Quebec and the St. Anne Nackawic Pulp Co. in New Brunswick. So be it. Let us send this bill to committee and do the research, but let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
This bill simply wants to provide some fairness: fairness for pensioners who find that their retirement benefits are reduced through no fault of their own. That is a laudable goal and ought to be supported by all members of the House.
Yes, this bill represents but one option for providing fairness for retirees. Maybe there are others that would achieve the same goal differently. If there are, let us talk about them at committee.
I believe the members of the BQ are sincere in their objective, which would suggest that they may be flexible on the means for achieving their goal. I, for one, welcome the opportunity to explore any option, including Bill C-445, that would give workers the ability to retire with the dignity and respect they deserve.
What is paramount is that we as policy makers recognize the five keys to solid pensions. First, workers must get the pension that they earned. Second, it should be a given that all workers deserve decent pension coverage. Third, there must be respect for both today's and tomorrow's retirees. Fourth, pension money must work for, not against, workers. Finally, as I said at the outset, we must develop a national good jobs strategy so that a dignified retirement is possible.
If we can all agree on these five principles, then I think the work that we do in committee on Bill C-445 would indeed move the yardsticks in the right direction. Despite the fact that the comments made by the Conservative members thus far in this debate and the equivocation that has been articulated by the Liberal members may call into question their commitment to the rights of workers and retirees in this country, I would like to remind them of a vote that they all cast in this very chamber not that long ago.
I had the privilege of introducing the seniors charter in the House of Commons on behalf of the NDP caucus. That charter, as members will recall, created a road map for ensuring that seniors can retire with the dignity and respect they deserve. One of the enumerated rights in that charter was the right of income security for seniors.
It was passed in the House by a vote of 231 to 52. Obviously we in the NDP voted for it unanimously, but so did all of the Conservative and Liberal MPs. Ironically, it was only the BQ that was opposed.
I call on my Conservative and Liberal colleagues to now walk the talk. If their support of the charter really meant a commitment to its principles, then their vote on Bill C-445 will be the proof in the pudding.
The charter clearly stated that seniors have the right to “income security, through protected pensions and indexed public income support that provides a reasonable state of economic welfare”. Those members voted for the charter, so they must now vote for Bill C-445 and send it to committee. The principles in each are the same.
I cannot wait for the vote because workers and retirees will then finally see who takes the principled position.