Mr. Speaker, I hardly know where to begin after listening to my colleague from the Liberal Party. I did have some prepared comments, but he has actually knocked me right off my game with the outlandish remarks he made regarding EI reform and his efforts to convince Canadians that the Liberal Party sincerely would like to see the EI system reformed.
I would like the record to show that it was the Liberals who gutted the unemployment insurance program in 1996. It was the Liberals who paved the way in 1996 and showed the Conservative Party how to use the EI fund as a cash cow for everything except income maintenance for unemployed workers.
It was the Liberals who were punished resoundingly in the province of Nova Scotia by six seats because they had the audacity to undermine income maintenance for unemployed workers. They got slaughtered in the election in 1997 as a direct result of using the EI system to pay off their debt on the backs of the most vulnerable people in the country, unemployed workers.
Before I begin my remarks on the bill put forward by my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst, I must tell the House that the Liberals gave away $100 billion in tax cuts, which they are very proud of and crow about from the rooftops. Let me tell the House where they got that $100 billion to give away to their buddies.
The Liberals took $30 billion right out of the unemployment insurance program, whether we call it stealing or lifting or pilfering, and not one penny of that was their money. It was paid in by contributions from employees and employers, nobody else.
They took another $30 billion from the surplus of the public sector pension plan. Again, they had no proprietary right to the surplus in the pension plan without negotiating it with the beneficiaries. The Liberals took that $30 billion right out of there and used it to do whatever they wanted, from paying down debt to giving tax breaks to their buddies.
The last $40 billion they took was from direct social program cuts.
That is where the Liberals got the $100 billion that they gave away to their buddies.
I must not get completely knocked off my game. I will return to the issue at hand here, which is Bill C-265, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (qualification for and entitlement to benefits), introduced and sponsored by my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst.
Let me preface my remarks by saying that working people in Canada have no greater champion on this issue than my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst. He was elected on the basis of his advocacy on this subject and he has been a tireless champion.
Throughout 11 years this June 2, this man has stood up many times to try to drum some reason into the ruling party of the day. There have been nine years of Liberal leadership and two years of Conservative leadership. He has been trying to get it through their thick heads that income maintenance for unemployed workers is a good thing to bridge the gap of employment.
He has been trying to tell them that our system is dysfunctional and broken. No wonder it was showing a surplus of $750 million a month at its peak: nobody was qualifying any more. It is not hard to design a system that shows a surplus if benefits are denied to virtually everybody who applies. That happened for two reasons.
First, the Liberals introduced a system that went to an hours-based system of 920 hours, which made it very difficult for people to qualify for the first time. The bill put forward by my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst proposes to reduce the eligibility qualifying time and return it to 360 hours. The benefit would be based on an individual's best 12 weeks.
We know who undermined that at committee. The heart and soul of this legislation, in summary, is that it would reduce the eligibility time so more people would qualify, and it would increase the benefit per week that individuals would receive so they would get a reasonable benefit based on former income. That was undermined at committee by the Conservatives, backed up by the Liberals.
This is a minority Parliament. The opposition parties could in fact effect this change in this finite window of opportunity, but it was gutted, stripped and undermined by the Liberals at committee. Therefore, we are right back where we started. Again we have the same fight of nobody qualifying for eligibility for EI any more and successive ruling parties in government using this fund as a cash cow to pay for everything but income maintenance for unemployed workers.
In 1997 we did a calculation of the impact of the Liberal cuts. In my riding alone, just the riding of Winnipeg Centre, when the Liberals gutted the EI system, $20.9 million a year in federal money that was coming into the riding of Winnipeg Centre was ripped out. It was like losing the payrolls of two huge pulp mills or auto plants. Federal payroll money of $20.9 million a year that was coming into the riding no longer did. It was stopped.
That was true in every riding across the country. There were some ridings in Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec where the impact was in terms of $50 million a year of federal money that used to come into those ridings. In the riding of Acadie--Bathurst, it was $81 million a year.
Do we wonder why the constituents were up in arms and sent the bums running by voting them out of office en masse in those Atlantic Canada ridings? That was the real impact of the changes to EI. Yes, the Liberals might have balanced the books, but they balanced the books on the backs of the people least able to afford it.
I am a journeyman carpenter. I have been on probably 10 different EI claims in my life, which is just a fact of life as an employee in the blue collar industries, but let me tell members about one thing that always bugged me, which neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives ever fixed.
When I was going through my four year apprenticeship, there was a two week waiting period even when I was going to trade school, as if I had been laid off. But apprentices are not laid off: the beauty of apprenticeship is that people earn while they learn. The employers give them six weeks off to go to the trade school and study for those six weeks.
It used to be that we could go right onto EI. That was part of the deal. Then the Liberals introduced a two week waiting period for apprentices, who had to starve and somehow borrow money to bridge that gap. That cost $11 million a year. A lousy $11 million a year would have made people whole for the two week waiting period, at least among the carpenters. I guess we have to extrapolate that to other trades.
That is how nickel and dime they were as they were trying to squeeze every ounce of juice out of the EI system. I will never forgive them for the inconvenience that it caused me and people I know.
Now that the Liberals think they are poised to form a government again someday, they are unwilling to fix the EI system, which they broke. In spite of all their rhetoric and being sympathetic to the issues, they are unwilling to fix it. I listened to that guy from Dartmouth and I could not believe it as he fudged around all of the issues that he knows very well are true.
When we add up the numbers of opposition members in this House of Commons, we see that we can do anything. United, we could bring this government down. United, we could fix the EI system. United, we could have a national pharmaceutical health care plan. United, we could have a national child care program.
We could do anything, but those members have squandered this finite window of opportunity.
I am running out of time, but I want to do justice to the bill that my colleague has introduced and has fought so valiantly for. It must make his blood boil to sit here in the House of Commons today and watch the other parties, the ruling party and its dancing partner, the Liberal Party, once again strip, undermine and destroy his efforts to fix the EI system.
I know that people in his riding had some optimism that perhaps this was the window of opportunity we needed, that surely Parliament would listen to them now that working people are represented in the House of Commons, and now that the three centre-left parties, so to speak, are united in opposition, but no, one of those parties went south on us. The official opposition went south on us, and we lost this again because the Liberals still see the unemployment insurance fund as a cash cow they can milk.
That $54 billion that we will vote on later today in Bill C-50 will be the end of that surplus money. Just let me state for the record one more time in case there is anybody who does not understand it: this is not the government's money. The entire EI fund since 1986 has been made up of contributions from employers and employees. Not one penny has come from the federal government.
When the fund dipped into deficit for a few years in the early 1990s, the total accumulated deficit was $11 billion. That was paid back, so as for the government taking $54 billion now and leaving only $2 billion in the kitty, the member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour says we should not call it theft, but I am at a loss for words for what else we would call it. It is simply not the government's money to use as it sees fit.
It is not too late, I urge members, to support my colleague's amendments to reinstate these conditions to make the unemployment system work. I call on all members to vote in favour of the amendments he has put forward today.