Mr. Speaker, I also want to thank my colleague from Hamilton Mountain on proposing this motion this morning.
The debate we are holding today could be called “the dignity or deceit debate”. Allow me to explain. When I refer to dignity, I am talking about the dignity we need to give the unemployed, who did not choose to lose their jobs. When I refer to deceit, I am talking about how, since the early 1990s, the unemployed have been robbed of the tool the government created to support people who lose their jobs: the employment insurance fund.
The employment insurance fund used to be called the unemployment fund. The unemployment insurance program paid benefits to people who lost their jobs. That program was changed and given a new look. We did not want that change. Two successive federal governments changed that concept, in order to use the program in a different way.
As I said, the employment insurance fund is the only tool the unemployed have. Workers and their employers are the only contributors to this fund, which will help workers if they are unfortunate enough to lose their jobs. That is why the EI fund is also known as an insurance policy. I will not go on too long about this. I just wanted to remind this House about the nature of this tool.
This tool is structured to cover unforeseen circumstances. The unemployment rate is sometimes very high. Depending on the region, it has sometimes fluctuated between 8% and 9%, and it has reached 18% in some areas. There are even places where it has climbed to over 20%. Every time, the fund has fulfilled its commitments to the unemployed. Today, contributions are $1.73 per $100, but they have been as high as $3.20 per $100. When unemployment was higher, contributions automatically increased. Sometimes, the government came to the rescue for brief periods when contributions were not enough to cover benefits. But each time, the fund paid the government back.
In the mid 1980s, the Auditor General said that it might be a good idea to move the fund to the national budget, so it could be administered along with it. The accounting of it has, however, always been separate in order to meet obligations. The recommendation was made in 1985-86. In 1988 or 1989, the government accepted the recommendation.
Things became complicated when Canada found itself with an exponentially growing debt. When the Conservatives arrived on the scene, I think the Canadian government debt amounted to $93 billion. While the Conservatives were in office, they drove the debt to a little over $500 billion. Shortly before, Mr. Trudeau and his government had also contributed significantly to increasing the country's debt. This lack of concern over controlling the debt gave rise to public pressure, and the government had to do something.
Instead of looking for new sources of funding, however, the government dipped into a source not intended for the purpose. Beginning in the 1990s, the Conservatives began dipping into the fund. Subsequently, the Liberals made substantial use of it to the point that, by 1997, the fund had generated a surplus of $7 billion. Incredible.
And how did the fund generate a surplus of over $7 billion? The Liberals limited the conditions of eligibility so that accessibility to the plan, which was capable of providing benefits to 88% of people who had lost their job, was limited to 40% of the unemployed. According to the human resources department, the figure now is 46%.
This spells disaster for people who lose their job, their family, the regions and the provinces concerned, such as Quebec. The approach is totally disgraceful. The government paid off the debt little by little by appallingly taxing people who lost their job. They were denied a source of income that would provide a living for them, to the tune, today, of $57 billion. This is money taken from the employment insurance fund.
That is unacceptable. I find it hard to understand how the two major national parties are so comfortable with this situation. Not only are they comfortable with it, but they created it, are perpetuating it and continue to defend it. It is a huge swindle.
In legal terms, the Supreme Court ruled on it and said that, technically, the government was entitled to do what it was doing, because it had the power to collect taxes in different ways. This is one approach. Technically, the Supreme Court said it could. Ethically and in terms of its justice, however, should we tolerate this situation and allow it to continue—justice being our first concern—or should we not change tack today and correct the situation?
The deceit continues. Yesterday's vote on Bill C-10 will not correct the situation. With this budget, the two major parties have given the government the green light to keep contributions to employment insurance at their lowest level since 1982. What does that mean. It means that the government is putting a lock on any possibility of improving the employment insurance plan. Things are now twice as difficult.
We listened to our Liberal friends this morning. I am pleased with what they said but I am not pleased about what they did yesterday. It makes us skeptical about their discourse. Are they aware that what they are saying today cannot be taken to its logical conclusion without turning around and authorizing increases in contributions to keep step with needs, especially in an economic downturn such as the one we are experiencing now.
That would be quite in step with the recommendations made by groups concerned. These groups are the employers who also contribute to the fund, and the unemployed or the unions. We have to improve the employment insurance system and improve its accessibility.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, in a December 2004 report completed in February 2005, made 28 recommendations, including the measures proposed in this morning's motion. Thus, both governments, the previous Liberal government and then the Conservative government, did not follow through. They found all manner of subterfuges to not follow through. That is also a form of deceit. There is no getting around it. It is a serious economic crime.
Every riding is out an average of $30 million annually. Not only does this impoverish the unemployed, it impoverishes their families, the regions, the provinces and, as I was saying earlier, Quebec. In the end, people contributed to an employment insurance fund in order to have an income if they had the misfortune of losing their job. But they do not get their money because Ottawa is holding it back. Thus, the province has to step in and support these people who do not have an income. At that point, welfare kicks in. The same people pay twice for a service provided by their province even though the latter should not have that responsibility. But it is forced to assume it because the federal government has sloughed it off. And the fiscal imbalance increases even further.
Thus, responsibility rests with the two major parties, as I mentioned earlier.
I will begin the second part of my speech by referring to something which most of our mothers have probably told us. In any case, it is something that my mother often said to me: “My boy, if you are not able to keep your word, if you are not able to honour your signature, if you dishonour your family, then of course you dishonour yourself”. In this Parliament, there are parties that have not honoured their commitments, not kept their word, and not honoured their signature.
I will give two examples. Let us take the Liberal Party. During the election campaign, it made a formal commitment, hand on heart, to help to ensure that this Parliament adopts measures to make employment insurance more accessible and to eliminate the waiting period—a formal commitment. In a joint platform signed by the three opposition parties on December 1, 2008—three months ago—the Liberal Party undertook to ensure that the program for older worker adjustment, POWA, was restored, that the waiting period was eliminated, and that the employment insurance fund would henceforth be used only to assist unemployed persons. This was barely three months ago. The Liberal Party’s vote yesterday on Bill C-10 is flatly contrary to that—three months later. Therefore that party has not kept its word, not honoured its signature.
As a result, the other opposition parties are very much afraid that they will be unable to depend on the word and the signature of the Liberal Party. Under the circumstances, given that this motion expresses an opinion to the government, that it is not binding on the government and does not create any constraints, we are very skeptical that the Liberal Party will again honour to the end its signature and its commitment.
It is very important to continue this debate and to continue to focus on the behaviour of the Liberal Party, to make sure that it understands that the three opposition parties form the majority and that they have a mandate from the population to see to it that the Conservatives do not act as if they were the majority and do not continue to implement their ideological decisions and programs. That should be the framework of the Liberals at this time. We have a responsibility. The mandate the people have given the majority opposition is to keep an eye on the government and ensure that the programs proposed are actually carried out. That is why we were elected.
In December, the coalition’s platform was created on the basis of these programs. The opposition parties looked in their programs for points in common, constituting a platform which would gradually take us out of the economic crisis. The objective was to kick-start the economy, so that in four years we might again have a balanced budget with a deficit of $23 to $27 billion during this period, with a very specific program.
There is something here that does not respect electors' wishes. The Liberals’ behaviour denies us the mandate we have been given. This I stress very strongly—more so than the content of the employment insurance program. For it will determine the way things turn out. If the Liberals are not going to honour their commitment to the end, we will never be able to rectify the employment insurance program. This injustice must be corrected.
This injustice can be corrected, formally, by voting for two bills, among others, which the Bloc Québécois has already introduced. That is why we are pleased that the NDP is joining us on this platform. I refer to Bill C-241 introduced by my colleague from Brome—Missisquoi, which concerns the elimination of the waiting period and which, incidentally, does not create enormous costs since these are only administrative expenses and there is no addition to the number of weeks.
We must therefore carry this through to the end and vote in favour of Bill C-241, which is presently in second reading. We must also vote in favour of Bill C-308 which it has been my honour to introduce myself, and which covers all the other elements of today’s motion so as to make the employment insurance system more accessible and improve it in a manner that respects the dignity of unemployed Canadians.