Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the motion, which calls for a number of things. It allows us to hold the government to account, adjust the House calendar in the fall and a number of other issues, as well. It also allows us, as members of Parliament, to arrive home tonight or tomorrow and see our families, which will welcome us.
Our constituents may not be as welcoming and they certainly would not have been delighted to see us knocking on their doors. I think people would have felt downright anger if we had been unable to do something productive so we could avoid an election in Canada. I know people never really want an election. They have more important things to do with their lives. We need to have them on occasion, but I think Canadians were right in this case. This was not the time to have an election.
My colleagues and I arrived here on Monday and nobody knew exactly what would happen. We knew Canadians were watching. I think this week Parliament rose to the level of the people we represent. There are differences among all parties, and those continue. The government is not completely satisfied and the opposition is not completely satisfied, and I say that about all opposition parties. However, I believe significant concessions have been made in the national interest.
I want to talk about employment insurance. EI is an issue that I have been involved with for some time now, ever since my appointment as critic for human resources two and a half years ago. To be frank, it was not an issue about which I had a lot of knowledge. I come from an area in Atlantic Canada. People often say that I am from Atlantic Canada, so EI is a big issue. In fact, in the riding of Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, people need the maximum number of hours to qualify for EI, which is 700 hours. Many other parts of Atlantic Canada have seasonal issues of unemployment and areas of high unemployment and the hours to qualify are different.
In my view this is not a regional issue. It is a national issue. It may have regional implications, but this is a national issue of employment insurance. On taking my job, it became clear to me, from listening to stakeholder groups that represented workers and other social justice and business groups, that it was time for changes to EI.
My colleague from Wascana has correctly outlined the differences between the mid-1990s and today. There are very significant differences in the economy. EI has to adjust to the economic circumstances. We are in a crisis. EI, as a major part of our social infrastructure, has to play an important role as we recover from this crisis.
Over the last little while, particularly since the last election, EI has become a very significant issue to Canadians. There was nothing about employment insurance in the very partisan economic update. In fact, the Conservatives first denied there was a problem. This led to a showdown in the fall and toward Christmas. Then the Prime Minister shut down Parliament.
The Liberals first raised the alarm bell. With increased unemployment, people were experiencing, for example, delays in obtaining their benefits, sometimes up to 40-plus days. My colleague from Madawaska—Restigouche raised this issue in the House back in November. I think people in his constituency were waiting 55 to 60 days.
On November 27, 2008, I asked a question of the Minister of Human Resources about delays. She denied there was a problem. On December 19, I sent a letter to her, indicating we needed some action. Again, we did not get any indication that the government saw this as an issue.
Three months went by with no response until she sent me a letter in which she apologized for the delay in responding to my letter. However, she still did not address the issue about wait times for EI. Eventually we saw $60 million that appeared to have been dedicated toward easing the backlog of EI applications.
The other issue with respect to EI is this. Tens of thousands of Canadians have paid into EI but do not qualify. They paid into the plan and when they needed the help, it was not there. The Conservative government again failed to act for months, and as a result caused families to suffer.
On each issue, the Liberals fought day in and day out during this session of Parliament, calling upon the government to take real action on employment insurance, but it did not. We nearly ended up with an election, but this week we were able to avert that. From our point of view, the good thing from that is the Prime Minister has acknowledged it does not make sense to have 58 EI rates.
If we look at the chart of employment insurance, it is incredibly complicated. People need a degree in mathematics just to figure out whether they qualify, based on the hours they have, the employment rate in their region, et cetera. It does not make any sense that people who live in Ottawa do not qualify for EI, but if they work in the same place but live in Gatineau, they do. It is the same thing in Moncton and Dieppe. People could working in the same plant and one person would qualify, the other would not. In my own riding of Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, one does not have to drive very far to see a very significant differentiation in terms of who qualifies for EI and who does not.
How do we fix it? We have seen private members' bills, studies and advocacy from a lot of people. The New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois have raised this in private members' bill for years, and I have supported them. I do not question their motivation on this, but I do question what has actually come out of it.
The member for Hamilton Mountain correctly talked about an opposition day motion she brought forward. The member for Welland has brought forward a bill. My colleague from the Bloc, who works with me on the human resources committee, has brought forward bills. The Bloc member for Brome—Missisquoi has a bill that passed the House and has to go to committee. We have supported these important bills. However, the problem is they have not helped one worker in the country. They have added up to nothing. It is inside baseball or inside Ottawa, so to speak.
The fact is when we come to this place, we can either make a point or we can make a difference. Let us try to make a difference. My colleague from Kings—Hants often speaks about this.
We will all go home tonight or tomorrow and we will have the chance to do our work. We all know it is not a summer vacation. MPs work very hard in their ridings. When we have come through a hard session, as we have recently, we have a lot to make up in our constituencies. We take our work very seriously. Nobody gets everything they want, but Canadians do get a couple of things. They get a summer without an election and they also have an opportunity to make significant improvement in employment insurance.
As a result of the discussions between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, I now have a summer job that I did not apply for, but which I am happy to accept. I am happy to work with my colleague from Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine. I will work with the Minister of Finance, with the officials and with whomever I have to, because this is important work.
I will not stand here today and tell members that we will come to an agreement in September. It may well be that we cannot because we have certain principles. We have talked about 360 hours, and that has been maligned. I do not think it has even been a misunderstanding. There have been absolute deliberate mistruths spread about that 360-hour standard.
Right now people can get EI in many parts of the country for 420 hours. That is not a whole lot different from 360 hours. In fact, people cannot collect EI for a year anywhere in the country. The maximum was 45 weeks. With the extension of five weeks, it is now 50 weeks. Our proposal for the duration of the crisis, which I think makes a lot of sense, is people would be able to qualify for EI after 360 hours. They would still have a variable length of time in which they could collect it, starting at 19 weeks and going up to 50 weeks. A structural change to EI has to come.
The self-employed have talked for years about the need to be involved. It is not a simple issue. How do we determine who actually is eligible as a self-employed person? Should it be voluntary or should it be mandatory? There are those who would say both.
If we asked all Canadians who pay EI, “Would you like to pay EI?”, what we would have? Most people who think they might need it would pay for it. Those who did not think they would need it might not pay for it. That would be a normal thing. With the self-employed, it is a complicated issue, but it is time we tackled this. I think as a result of the restructuring, as an outcome of the crisis in economy, we will have more self-employed people. That is important.
However, regional fairness is important. Any one of us, the 308 members of Parliament in the House, would have a hard time going to our constituents and saying to them, in a time of economic crisis, that they need 700 hours to qualify but somebody else needs 420. The regional rates have made sense in economies in the past, but right now Canadians are hurting. It is about fairness. It is about a national standard. It is about doing what is right for Canadians when they need help.
Employment insurance is a very important piece of our social infrastructure. It is time to make it better. I certainly look forward to, and accept humbly, the opportunity to be a part of the task force. I hope we can make a difference for Canadians.