Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to speak in the third reading debate on Bill C-50, the budget implementation act.
It is not without some disappointment that I rise this morning to speak in this debate, largely because of what happened last night at the report stage votes on Bill C-50.
Last night we had the opportunity to show our displeasure with two key components of this legislation, the changes that it would impose on employment insurance and the immigration measures that are included in the bill.
Last night we were voting on two series of amendments that the NDP strongly supported. I know the Bloc also supported them; in fact, they proposed some of the amendments that we voted on, and the NDP proposed the other set. The amendments would have made significant changes to the legislation that we are debating this morning. They would have deleted the problematic sections pertaining to immigration in this legislation. They would have changed the provisions dealing with employment insurance in this legislation.
Unfortunately, we were robbed of that opportunity by the Liberal Party. Twelve members of the Liberal Party voted against the legislation last night, despite their protestations that they strongly oppose these provisions and that they are speaking up for Canadians who are concerned about immigration policy. Unfortunately, that was not enough to affect the outcome of the vote last night.
It is actually shocking that despite their protestations, the Liberals find it difficult to come to this place and express the opinion that they expressed to Canadians across this country and instead say, “Trust us. We will change it when we come to power”. We do not know when that is going to happen.
The reality is that last night was the opportunity for the official opposition, the Liberal Party, to exercise the power that it does command in this Parliament and to see that the legislation was changed, to see that the problems were fixed, to see the Liberals standing up to speak for those Canadians who are concerned about the changes to immigration, for instance, in this legislation. Instead, they chose not to do that. I think that is a very serious problem.
I do not think there is anything more important that I do in this place than rise in my place and vote on important legislation that is before the House. I take that moment very seriously. I wish more members of the Liberal Party would take that moment seriously. We have that opportunity in this minority Parliament. It is important that when we say we are going to seek changes, as the Liberal Party did, when we see problems with legislation that we exercise the power we have in this place, but that is not what is happening.
Sadly, the bill is at third reading now and we are debating the bill that the Conservatives proposed. We are debating again the immigration and EI measures that are so problematic and so significant, that imply such significant changes, and which we really do need to address.
I thought it was ironic this morning in debate that a Liberal member said that we could not trust the Conservatives to exercise the discretionary authority around immigration that is in this legislation, that we could not trust them to have that kind of discretionary power, and at the same time said that Canadians should trust the Liberals some point down the road to fix the legislation.
The opportunity is here now. The opportunity was here last night to make those changes. Clearly, Canadians cannot trust the Liberals to put their votes where their mouths are on this immigration issue in particular. That opportunity was lost last night. It is very serious. I think many Canadians will have something to say to Liberal members of Parliament about that.
With regard to the bill before us, one of the significant changes that is in this legislation is regarding the operation of the EI fund.
We have heard very strong language used, particularly from this corner of the House, about the implication of the changes in this legislation. Some members have said that there is a theft under way, that money is being stolen from workers and employers in Canada as a result of this legislation. I have to agree with members who use that strong language, because it is a very serious proposition that we are debating in this legislation.
In recent years there has been an accumulation of a $54.1 billion surplus in what is taken in in EI premiums over what is spent on EI payments and on training programs related to EI. That is money that has been collected in good faith from Canadian workers and from Canadian employers to run the employment insurance program.
The legislation is proposing that a new Canada employment insurance financing board be established. The board's job will be to set rates and cover payments for employment insurance. There is a significant change in all of this because the operation of the board will be more related to general economic trends rather than the needs of individual workers, which is the current bias of the operation of the EI program. That is a significant change.
The other significant problem with what is being proposed is that the reserve fund that is being established to cover changes in the economic climate and a rising unemployment rate will only be $2 billion. That is the reserve fund that is being established as a result of this legislation.
We know flatly that is just not enough. We have strong supporters in that opinion. The Auditor General has been very clear in saying that $10 billion to $15 billion at a minimum is necessary to ensure that any economic downturn can be accommodated by the EI fund. The former chief actuary of Canada has said that $15 billion is necessary to accomplish the same thing. Yet the proposal that we have before us only sets aside $2 billion.
When there was $54 billion collected from workers and employers over the years and we are only setting aside $2 billion, what is happening with that other $52 billion? That is a serious problem.That is why some members have been led to call this a significant theft and claim that that money is being stolen from workers and employers in Canada.
Rather than propose this kind of measure, there was a time when the Conservatives were in opposition when they actually proposed that the $54 billion should be repaid to the EI fund recognizing that this was money collected from workers and employers in Canada. Sadly, they have lost that impetus to do the right thing, to do justice to workers and employers in Canada to ensure that that money was used for the purposes for which it was collected. They have done a complete about face and are now willing to write off that $52 billion completely, and in doing so, make a very inadequate accommodation for the possibility of an economic downturn.
I think all of us are nervous about that right now. The Conservatives talk about people who are preaching doom and gloom. I do not think any of us want to preach doom and gloom, but I think all of us want to be aware of the signals that are out there. There are many people who are concerned about the possibility of recession and the possibility of an economic downturn.
Without a strong EI program we know that is going to make any downturn more problematic for Canadians. Many of us believe that the EI program that exists today is a mere shadow of what it once was. Many Canadian workers are finding it difficult when they are laid off to get by without the kind of EI program that we have had in the past.
The news today from Oshawa, the city where I was born and in which I grew up, is not good. The truck plant is being shut down and a thousand more auto workers are going to be out of a job. That is a very significant development. It is a real depletion of the operations of General Motors in Canada. It is a significant blow to Canadian workers, losing a thousand more well-paying manufacturing auto industry jobs, jobs that have great benefits, that have pensions attached to them. The shortcomings of the EI program are going to make it more difficult for workers in places like Oshawa who are losing their jobs today and in the coming months. It is a very serious problem. We should be using that $52 billion to ensure there are programs to assist workers as job losses happen and assist them with job retraining. That is not what is going on. That is not the direction the Conservatives are choosing.
If there is a reason to not support Bill C-50, that is one excellent reason. I put it to the member for Oshawa and the member for Whitby—Oshawa, who proposed this legislation, that I do not know how they could turn their backs on their constituents at this terrible time in their community. I do not know how they could not be taking every measure possible to ensure that programs are in place to assist them as these very difficult closures happen.
It is not just in the auto sector that this is happening. It is happening in the forestry sector in British Columbia.
We have seen many communities in British Columbia dramatically affected by the loss of forestry jobs, such as the community of Mackenzie, for instance, and many other communities in the interior of British Columbia, as well as communities on Vancouver Island and even communities on the lower mainland, where mills have closed. They all have seen the difficulties associated with the changes in the forestry industry, yet there has been precious little assistance from the government.
The EI fund is of less assistance than it might have been at one time because of the changes that have been introduced to it. That is a significant issue in British Columbia.
We know about the ongoing litany of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs that have been lost in recent years in Canada. Those jobs are gone. Gone with them are the high wage rates, the benefits and the pension plans.
The government says constantly that it has created many other jobs. We know that those jobs that have been created have been largely service jobs. They are largely minimum wage jobs or pay slightly above minimum wage. They do not have the same kinds of benefits. They do not have pensions associated with them.
There can be no substitution of those kinds of jobs with the kinds of jobs we are losing all across this country, the jobs that pay great wages and have excellent benefits and pensions associated with them. It is a very serious problem.
Our EI critic, the member for Acadie—Bathurst, has often described the situation of eligibility for employment insurance today. Only 32% of women workers are eligible and only 38% of male workers are eligible. Hundreds of thousands of Canadian workers are ineligible for EI benefits. These are people who are out there working in the economy and yet do not qualify for EI.
As well, any time there is the possibility of a downturn in the economy, localized or national, provincial or regional, we know how important having a strong EI program has proven to be over many years and decades in Canada. Sadly, we do not have the same commitment to that program today. This legislation is not going to help that at all.
We also know that when we are trying to address poverty issues in Canada, family poverty and child poverty, EI is a crucial piece of the grouping of policies and programs we need to see a decline in poverty in Canada. Sadly, when we do not treat EI with the kind of respect it deserves as a program central to that effort, it is actually an outrage. It is an outrage that we would not give it that place of importance in all of this.
This legislation also includes the controversial amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that would give the minister, among other things, greater discretion in whether or not to accept immigration applications. There is a problem with the fact that this is here in the first place.
This change should not have been included in the budget implementation act. It is a serious change to immigration law in Canada. It should have been on its own. It should have been stand-alone legislation so that it could have had the direct attention it deserves because of the significance of the change it implies.
It should not have been buried in a budget implementation bill. I hope the Conservatives will reconsider that kind of tactic in future when they are bringing forward other legislation. It is not appropriate to bury something on a completely different topic in this kind of legislation.
This change the Conservatives are proposing is very important to people in my riding. I have a significant new Canadian and immigrant population in my constituency. Any change to immigration law is keenly watched in my constituency.
Giving these kinds of discretionary powers to the minister is inappropriate. We should not be giving the minister this kind of discretionary ability to ignore applications.
We fought long and hard to ensure that any immigration application submitted was considered. That change was a major victory for people who care about the exercise of immigration policy in Canada.
This legislation would undo that. Again, if there is a reason for not supporting this legislation, that is it. This turns back the clock on important gains that have been made in the past with regard to immigration policy and the immigration application process in Canada.
The reality is that this change is promoted as a way of dealing with the immigration backlog, which is at about 900,000 applications or more right now. This will not do anything to address the backlog because it does not apply to most of the applications in the backlog. It does not really do what it is being sold as attempting to do.
I think it is a bit of false advertising on the part of the Conservative government to say this measure is somehow going to improve the backlog, because it will not. It will not even really touch it. We need greater processing capacity to deal with the backlog. This bill does nothing to address that.
There are a lot of problems with where the Conservatives are going on immigration and this bill highlights all of those problems. The new emphasis on temporary foreign workers is a huge change in Canadian immigration policy. In the past, we have encouraged people needed in our economy to come here as permanent residents. We have put them on the track to becoming full citizens of Canada.
European countries, for instance, have relied on a guest worker policy. We have never gone in that direction. When we see some of the social problems that have occurred in Europe as a result of that kind of guest worker or temporary foreign worker policy, we are lucky that Canada has not gone in that direction.
However, that is where the Conservatives are going now. In fact, they are reducing the number of places in the overall immigration target available to economic immigrants for family reunification in favour of temporary foreign workers and students. They are encouraging them to apply for permanent residence instead.
That is not going to help the backlog either. We are not going to alleviate that backlog if we keep taking away places that could be considered for family applications in the system.
It is a real problem because family reunification has been one of the strong points of our immigration program. It has been one of the successful points of our immigration program. One of the reasons people have chosen to emigrate to Canada over other countries is that the possibility of having family members join them here was held out as a significant promise to them when they came to Canada.
We let that program wither at our peril, I believe, because in a world that is increasingly competitive with regard to immigrants, we cannot afford to give up any of the competitive edges that we hold over other countries when it comes to attracting immigrants.
I believe the government is bent on reducing the emphasis on family reunification. The first time the former minister of citizenship and immigration appeared at the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, he left reunification out of the list of reasons why we have an immigration policy in Canada.
He talked about the economic needs of Canada, nation building and protecting vulnerable refugees, but he did not mention family reunification. It is significant when a minister fails to list one of the key objectives of Canada's immigration program over many decades. That was a significant indicator.
If people go to the immigration website, as I did a little while back, it is hard to find in any of the general descriptions of Canada's immigration policy a reference to family reunification. It has dropped off the opening pages of the website. Again, it is a very serious downgrading of the position of family reunification in Canada. The changes proposed in this bill will only feed into that.
I could have talked about some of the things that this bill does not address and should have. It does not talk about any new program for housing in Canada. We know that is a significant problem all across this country. Affordable housing and homelessness are very serious issues that Canadians want addressed and they are not in this bill.
I could have talked about how the Conservative government, with this legislation, is lowering overall corporate tax rates but raising overall individual corporate tax rates. That is inappropriate as well.
I could have talked about the loss of income that Canadians have suffered since 1989 and how these budget measures do nothing to address that. It is only the very wealthy who are doing better in this time period. Everyone else is taking a hit, particularly those at the low end of the income scale.
I could have talked about gutting the fiscal capacity of government by over $200 billion, which the government is in the process of doing.
I could have talked about the funding cuts to the important programs that would have addressed some of the important social needs of Canadians. Those programs would make it possible for Canadians to collectively address some of the social problems that exist in this country.
There are a lot of problems with this legislation. We in this corner will be voting against this legislation once again. We will stand in our places to do that and to keep our promises to Canadians on what we think about this legislation.