Madam Speaker, I have heard some rather absurd things today, and I must speak to this bill. I was an accountant and also a self-employed worker in a former life. I started working in 1974, and in 1978, I started my own business as an accountant. Of course, I did many financial statements and tax returns for a number of self-employed workers.
For some businesses, there was a single owner, but some of them were incorporated. Over time, we could see how employment insurance in Canada—unemployment insurance at the time—could work when it enabled an employer, self-employed worker or small business owner to hire a spouse and to have them contribute to EI.
At the time, EI inspectors would often show up to inspect the business's books. They would see that the spouse worked for the business and did not contribute to employment insurance. So they asked them to contribute. If a spouse worked for the business—or for a self-employed worker—and contributed to EI, but, due to decreased sales, applied for EI benefits, the inspectors would show up again and tell them they were not allowed to contribute. There were some standards to be met if the spouse wanted to contribute to employment insurance and be entitled to it if, unfortunately, they ended up unemployed.
For years, each situation had to be examined individually. When I gave advice to my clients—to say whether or not the individual should be insurable—and despite the bad intentions of the employment insurance inspectors, I was always able to suitably defend my position and I always won.
This brings me today to how the Conservatives see the program and employment insurance as such. The Bloc Québécois is constantly calling for some very important adjustments and policy changes with respect to employment insurance. In order to impress Canadians and Quebeckers, the Conservative Party is doing things that make no sense at all. For instance, in the context of the economic downturn we just went through, and which we are still feeling, when we asked that the two week waiting period be eliminated, they instead added five at the end. We cannot criticize that, but it does not have the same impact as adding two weeks at the beginning. Then they accuse us of voting against many aspects of their employment insurance program, but none of it makes any sense.
Now they come to us with a bill that grants special benefits for self-employed workers. Of course the Bloc Québécois agrees with the principle of such a bill to support self-employed workers, since we have always believed these workers should have access to the EI system, as though they were salaried employees. So we agreed with the principle of the bill. However, we are being presented with a program whose intentions are unclear. Of course, we can see them if we carefully analyze the numbers. And naturally, the program proposed by the government would be voluntary.
Many have focused on that aspect, including the NDP, the white knight of justice and equality. The NDP wants the Bloc Québécois to change its mind and make sure that everyone votes for this bill. The NDP also pointed out that the program is voluntary, not mandatory. However, there is something I would like to say to the NDP members who tell us that if Quebeckers are not interested, they need not sign up because it is a voluntary program.
The government is proposing social policy on a voluntary basis. I will not say that anyone is intentionally seeking to rob people, but I will say that someone is seeking to exploit people. If all Quebeckers were to sign up for this program tomorrow morning and pay the set premium, $1.36, they would be financing the sickness and compassionate care portions of this insurance scheme for the rest of Canada. They would be footing the bill for everyone else in Canada.
Why should Quebec have to do that? Earlier, the Conservatives said that what they are doing is strictly political and that they are doing it because they are gaining ground in Quebec. Obviously, they are daydreaming.
Not a single Quebecker would want the Bloc Québécois to make it possible for the rest of Canada to exploit Quebec on such an important issue as sickness and compassionate care benefits.
Their behaviour is just so sad. They were not even interested in hearing what the actuary had to say to the committee. He was in the position for many years and dealt with this issue and contribution rates. In fact, he was the one who did the calculations at the government's request to reduce contribution rates so that the government could say it reduced the rates. The government also made deep cuts to benefits.
Now, what the Conservatives are trying to do with this bill is look like the heroes and make everyone believe that they have done something good for self-employed workers.
I may have lost my train of thought a little, but I have lost none of the anger that I want to convey to the Conservative Party. What the Conservatives are trying to do here is appalling. As I said earlier, they want to look like heroes and make everyone think that they are helping self-employed workers. They finally realized that self-employed workers are strategically, even critically important to Quebec's economy and Canada's.
Quebec already has maternity benefits and parental leave, which cost us 86¢.The government is adding $1.36 to that, for a total of $2.22 for all the benefits, while self-employed workers in the rest of Canada will pay $1.73.
There may seem to be something wrong here. I would say that there is something wrong, but we also have to consider the fact that Quebec is slightly more progressive than the rest of Canada. It has more suitable parental and maternity leave programs.
Still, there is an unaccountable difference that I would describe as almost dramatic. I wonder how a Conservative member from outside Quebec would explain that to Quebeckers.
Quebeckers would certainly like to enrol in such a program, but how will they react when they find out they have to pay for the rest of Canada in addition to themselves?
The proposed rate of $1.36 is three times the actuary's estimate of 41¢. Every self-employed worker who signed up for this insurance would pay for three Canadian workers. I had not thought about it, but maybe that means that one Quebecker is worth four Canadians. But that is not what I want to say.
It comes down to the same thing, because Quebeckers account for 25% of the population. One country represents 25% of the population of another country. But that 25% is actually 100%.
I am stunned that even a single federal member from Quebec could support such exploitation of self-employed workers in Quebec. I am convinced that the NDP member from Quebec, the member for Outremont, will vote against this bill. He will never agree to tell self-employed workers in Quebec that they can get ripped off by voluntarily purchasing this insurance. Does the member for Outremont really want to tell Quebeckers that he is voting for insurance that literally exploits them? Is there something wrong with his idea of fairness and equity?
In speaking of fairness and equity, I would like to point out the contribution of the member for Mississauga South who clearly stated, as did other Bloc members, that we must do much more. We cannot give up. Just because we are at third reading today does not mean we must give up. Some things need to be clarified and others need to be challenged. Some changes may even be required. It begs a fundamental question: should this measure be mandatory? What would have happened if the bill had stated that the measure was mandatory?
Obviously the rate of $1.36 for Quebeckers would not have been acceptable and would not have been implemented. I even wonder if the intent of this premium rate is to have Quebeckers say no to this bill. It is important to ask this question. The Conservative Party constantly introduces bills that seem wonderful but that are at odds with Quebeckers' interests and do not work at all. That always happens. They are always sugar-coated and unfortunately the image projected almost never corresponds to the reality.
Once again, I appeal to all the members of this House and the Quebec members. I am convinced, even though these members sit in cabinet, even though they are ministers, that Quebeckers would never accept that they would agree to a bill to create a program that would shamelessly exploit them.
We actually were in favour of a program providing sickness and compassionate care benefits, but not on these terms.
It goes against our principles of fairness and equity to tell Quebeckers that we have managed to secure a sickness and compassionate care program but that they will have to pay so much and pay for the rest of Canada. I find that unacceptable and if no significant changes are made, if no adjustments are made to reflect the reality then, unfortunately, the Bloc Québécois will vote against the bill.