Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in this debate. In a way, it also gives us an opportunity to take stock of the past session. I would say that in our opinion, the whole legislative agenda in recent weeks and months has been very thin, and it is still very thin and in no way warrants extended sitting hours, as the government and the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons are requesting.
As you know and as the leader mentioned, this is the second year that the government and the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons have introduced this motion to extend sitting hours in June. Unfortunately, for the second year, we are going to have to say no. It is not because we feel compelled to say no every time. Moreover, the leader pointed out that in the past, even when there was a minority government, the opposition had agreed to support such a motion. But given the current legislative context, what the government is asking us is to give it a blank cheque from now until June 23. I will explain what I mean by that.
At the last two meetings of the House leaders and whips, the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons handed out proposed schedules up to June 23. Currently, four or five bills are being studied by parliamentary committees, and those studies should be completed shortly. We could see from the proposed schedules that before the end of the session, the government intends to debate new government bills when the House is not dealing with the bills coming back from committees.
What are these new bills the government intends to debate during the extended hours that are not taken up with the work already in progress in committees? This is extremely disturbing and that is where the government wants us to give it a blank cheque, which is unacceptable to the Bloc Québécois and, in fact, to all three opposition parties.
I will give an example. I am my party's democratic reform critic. What guarantee do I have that, during the extended hours, when the committee work draws to a close at its own pace—and it will go fairly quickly for most of these bills—the government will not decide to introduce a bill like Bill C-22, which was introduced in the past and was designed to increase the number of members from Ontario and western Canada and reduce Quebec's relative political weight? We would be very much opposed to such a bill. I would also remind hon. members, with respect to the potential reduction of Quebec's political weight in the House of Commons, that the National Assembly had unanimously passed a motion at the time, calling on the federal government to withdraw its bill. So I will certainly not agree to extended sitting hours so that the government can come back again with that idea.
I would also like to point out that we feel it is extremely important that the relative weight of Quebec's members in this House be maintained. Given the recognition of the Quebec nation by this House in November 2006, it is only natural that that nation's weight within an institution like this one should remain the same. It is often argued that the Constitution guarantees the 75 members from Quebec, but that argument is not enough. If we currently make up roughly 24% of this House, then that relative weight must be maintained.
The formula for doing so is still debatable. The number of members from Quebec could be increased proportionally. The remaining members could be distributed differently throughout Canada to ensure that this House will always have 308 members representing the entire country. But the fact remains that this is the sort of bill the government could introduce, taking advantage of the thin legislative agenda and the fact that we will have to fill time.
Consequently, the Bloc Québécois and I are not at all willing to give the government this blank cheque.
In practical terms, as the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons said, House committees are currently studying five bills. Of those, committees may report on three or four before the House adjourns for the summer. None of the bills is likely to be the subject of much debate or dissent from the opposition as a whole or even any one of the opposition parties. It is not hard to see that they will be passed quickly.
As I said, I am completely open to discussion, if ever the government thinks that a few extra hours would help wrap up a debate on a particular bill on a particular day. That is why, when I asked the official opposition whip a question earlier, I said that the government should approach things from the other direction rather than ask us to give it a blank cheque to extend sitting hours until 10 p.m. every day. The leader suggested that if we were to finish a debate at 8 p.m., we could see the clock as 10 p.m., but I think that it would be more logical to do things the other way around on a case-by-case basis. If the government needs more time to study a bill, it should ask the opposition to extend the sitting hours to debate a specific bill on a specific night.
As I said, unless the government is planning to introduce new bills that have not yet been announced, the fact that there is so little on the legislative agenda makes me worry that the government will have a hard time filling the 11 days we have left, let alone any extended hours. I have a hard time seeing how we will fill the schedule between now and June 23, and thus, once again, I cannot give the government a blank cheque to create an opportunity to debate bills that I am not currently aware of.
The official opposition whip and I have indicated that not only is the legislative agenda extremely thin, but it also fails to address the most critical issue at this time, which is the serious economic crisis we are facing. Consider the following example. Since May 15, when I held a press conference to denounce this thin legislative agenda, by the way, only five bills have been introduced. Three relate to justice, but none propose any solutions to address the economic crisis. We, however, have proposed some solutions.
I would like to show the people watching us here today the reality as it stands in the manufacturing sector in the regions of Quebec. Today I learned that in my riding, Graymont, a company that produces quicklime at its Joliette plant, is suspending production indefinitely.
I would like to quickly read the comments of Mr. Chassat, Graymont's director of operations for eastern Canada:
The very serious economic downturn in eastern North America is affecting many of our major clients in the steel, metal, and pulp and paper sectors. This has led to a significant decrease in demand...
Naturally, since Graymont is a company that must generate profits or at least break even—we are not talking about a not-for-profit organization—the company will close that plant until demand rebounds.
Not only is it clear that the crisis is worsening, but certain sectors that had previously been spared are going to be affected. Graymont hires workers. Those workers will be unemployed and eventually, their consumer behaviour will slow down. Fewer services will be needed in the Joliette region. Graymont also uses subcontractors who will also lose business. They might eventually be forced to close their doors. Accordingly, it would have been crucial, and it remains crucial, to have a real plan for economic recovery.
It was not just the Bloc Québécois' expectation, but also that of the Conférence régionale des élus du Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean, which lamented the fact that none of the programs met the needs of the forestry sector. When programs in theory targeted this sector, they were not accessible because it was difficult to meet the bureaucratic criteria established by this government. We are not the only ones who believe that the federal government should have and must come up with a second stimulus plan.
We have made suggestions twice before: the first time in November, before the ideological statement by the Minister of Finance, and the second in April. Our proposals deal with both employment insurance, or assistance for workers affected by the crisis, as well as the companies affected. I would like to mention a few of these proposals. First, there was the elimination of the two week waiting period. The Bloc Québécois is very pleased to be able to say that we introduced a bill in this regard, which is currently being studied in committee.
We also proposed an eligibility threshold of 360 hours for all claimants, an increase in benefits from 50% to 60% of earnings and an income support program for older workers. This program existed in 1998 and was cut by the Liberals. Since that time, successive governments, Liberal as well as Conservative, have said they will reinstate it. The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development said that she established a training pilot project but it is not an income support program for older workers that would allow older workers, over the fairly long term—from a few months to a few years—to bridge the gap between employment and retirement.
We did make several suggestions, but as I said, the government ignored them all. The Bloc Québécois would not be at all offended if the government decided to act on one or more of those suggestions. With respect to businesses, I want to add that we made a suggestion that would apply to all manufacturing sector businesses. A Corvée investissement program would enable the government to finance up to one-fifth of the cost of introducing new technologies. In the 1980s, Quebec's Corvée habitation program produced very good results for housing, and we took that as our inspiration. We suggested putting $4 billion into such a fund, which could generate investments worth about $16 billion if the total amount were used. The government wanted nothing to do with the idea.
I will raise a few other points and then get back to the issue of extending hours. The government has heard from us about loan guarantees and will continue to do so in question period. It is totally unacceptable for the forestry sector not to have access to loan guarantees. I will not get into the rhetoric spouted by the ministers from the Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean region. There are programs, but people are telling us that they do not qualify for those programs. So that means that we have ineffective, non-existent programs for people who are going through hard times.
As to refundable research and development tax credits, the whole industry wants this measure, which would enable businesses that are not making a profit to continue investing so they can be ready to compete when the economy begins to recover, which we hope will be as soon as possible.
I will conclude with two other examples of measures, such as the use of wood in the renovation and construction of federal buildings. I would remind the House of a very important figure. The assistance given to the auto sector is equivalent to $650,000 per job. No one is questioning the relevance of that assistance, although we would have liked to see more conditions attached. In comparison, the assistance given to the forestry sector amounts to $1,000 per job. In other words, the auto sector received 650 times more assistance than the forestry sector. We think this is completely unfair. Solutions must therefore be found for the forestry sector. We also suggested support for the communities affected by this very serious crisis.
Thus, we have seen some ideas concerning how the government should respond to the number one concern of Quebeckers and Canadians, namely, the economic crisis, as well as the insecurity they feel about their employment, their income and their families' futures.
As I said, nothing has been done, and the five bills that have been introduced since May 15, 2009, related to justice and public safety. In that regard, I must admit, the Conservatives have been very productive and I imagine the Minister of Justice is proud of that.
The problem is that, more often than not, the measures proposed have been populist measures that might interest a certain conservative following ideologically, but that are ineffective when it comes to maintaining a high level of security and well-being in Canadian and Quebec society. We are not questioning the importance of improving the justice system, but what the government is proposing has been more or less akin to aggressive therapy, rather than true modernization of the system.
Since Bill C-5 was introduced on May 8, 2009, no other bills have been introduced to help the thousands of workers who have lost their jobs. No bills have been introduced to help businesses in the manufacturing and forestry sectors, which have been so seriously affected by this crisis. None of those bills contained any measures to help regional economies and communities diversify. In fact, none of those bills would suggest that the government is aware of the magnitude of this economic crisis. Of course it is extremely difficult to understand the government's indifference.
However, now that we have heard the Minister of Natural Resources' comments, we perhaps have a better understanding of the Conservatives' political culture. We also see that the main concern of this minister is to boost her career and that the concerns of patients who do not have access to the isotopes or who are worried about the shortage are secondary. We also know that she finds the issue to be sexy. It is not the first time we hear such talk. Members will recall that, during the listeriosis crisis, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food made some comments that were quite shocking.
This lack of empathy and the government's indifference, reflected in its legislative agenda, make it impossible to accept the motion tabled by the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons because—and this is the crux of the matter—they are asking the opposition to give them a blank cheque. By extending sitting hours we would have absolutely no idea of what we would be debating. It certainly would not be the legislation before us, which can be announced.
For example, this morning they announced a bill regarding a park, which does not pose a problem. In my opinion, after reading the bill, the opposition parties will quickly agree to passing the bill in the shortest possible timeframe. This type of bill does not pose a problem and does not require the extension of sitting hours.
As was the case last year, the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons did not convince us of the usefulness of extending sitting hours and that is why we are refusing. The opposition or the Bloc Québécois do not oppose extending sitting hours when the time is to be used productively, but they do not see the purpose of extending sitting hours just to pass the time or, even worse, to study surprise bills.
As I mentioned, there is also no guarantee that new bills will not be introduced, perhaps with the complicity of the Liberals, to ram things down Quebec's throat. We cannot run the risk, by extending the hours, of granting time for bills about which we know nothing.
Unfortunately, we have seen no evidence to suggest that the government would use extended sitting hours to deal with the economic crisis and help people who have lost their jobs and do not qualify for employment insurance because the criteria are too restrictive. Nor have we seen anything to suggest that these bills would help the forestry and manufacturing sectors. Not only do we have no guarantees, but we have not heard even the faintest suggestion that the government is interested in helping.
In closing, if the government makes specific requests to extend sitting hours to study specific bills at specific times, the Bloc Québécois will be open to talking about it. I will be open to talking about it. But right now, with the legislative agenda before us, I think that adopting the motion put forward by the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons would amount to giving the Conservative government carte blanche, and that is the last thing that the Bloc Québécois and Quebec want to give this government.