Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to have the opportunity to debate, for the second time this week, a bill about employment insurance.
We have heard from the government a bit about the bill. We will hear from the opposition parties how they feel about it, but the sad, overarching fact about all of this which overrides the content, or the lack of content, of this bill is that this is not really about employment insurance at all. It is about politics and about political games.
The Conservative government does not particularly care much about the social infrastructure of this country. We know that and we knew that from the beginning. When it inherited the Liberal surplus, it still cut literacy, the court challenges program, women's groups and many other pieces of the social infrastructure of this country. That is when it was living off our surpluses.
No, this is not a bill about EI. This is about politics and using EI as a tool. To the Conservatives, this is all a parliamentary chess game with politics first and people second.
Let us take a moment to see how we got to this today.
Last year at about this time, the Prime Minister was denying that there was any recession coming down on Canadians. We then had the economic update, which ignored the problem, and a finance minister who referred to the recession as a technical recession.
In January we saw a flawed budget, but there were some investments in things such as EI, extension for benefits and money for training. We said that we did not think the budget was enough but that it was a start. We supported it. The other parties did not. It was qualified support. The day we announced we would support the budget, we said that we needed to see more to continue our support of the government.
Last spring, employment insurance was a big issue. It was needed across the country. Jobs were being shed in many parts of Canada, including many parts of this country that had not suffered job losses in previous recessions.
The Leader of the Opposition indicated the Liberal position, which was regional fairness and a national standard of 360 hours to qualify. He was not alone on that.
The premier of B.C., Gordon Campbell, said Canadian workers, whether they lived in the Maritimes, the north, or Ontario, should be treated the same way.
The premier of Saskatchewan said that instead of 50-plus different treatments for the number of qualifying hours, we needed to dramatically reduce that.
The premier of Alberta said that unemployed families, whether they lived in Nova Scotia, Quebec or Alberta were equally unemployed.
The TD bank said that the truth of the matter was that during an economic downturn, it was no easier to find a job in a region with a lower prevailing unemployment rate than in one with a higher unemployment rate.
Pierre Fortin from Quebec said of the Leader of the Opposition's proposal that 360 hours was no problem, that it was just and fair.
A number of organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce said that a measure to improve the equity of the EI system that would be consistent with longer-term, smart policy would be to immediately and permanently make the duration of and access to benefits the same.
Perhaps my favourite was from the Reform Party of Canada platform's statement of principles which said: “An unemployed worker is an unemployed worker and deserves to be treated the same, regardless of region of residence. We will urge the immediate elimination of discriminatory EI elements such as regional entrance requirements”. The author of that is now the Prime Minister of this country. That is what he said then. We see where he is now.
In the spring, EI was a big issue, a huge issue in this Parliament. There were a number of private members' bills brought forward which Liberals supported as a way of sending a message to the government that this was a serious issue, that we would not agree with everything that was in all these bills that our colleagues from other parties had put forward, but that we supported the principle of investing in people and in the social infrastructure of this country.
Bill C-241, from my friend from Brome—Missisquoi, called for the removal of the two-week waiting period.
Bill C-279, from the member for Welland, called for an enactment providing that pension benefits, vacation pay and severance were not to be included in earnings.
Bill C-280, from my NDP colleague from Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, called for a lowering of the threshold for becoming a major attachment to 360 hours, the national standard, setting the weekly payable to 55% of the best 12 weeks and reducing the qualifying period for receiving benefits.
We had an opposition day motion brought forward by the member for Hamilton Mountain, and I am going to read the whole thing because it is interesting to juxtapose the view of the NDP on March 5 and the view of the NDP here in September. This motion said:
That, in the opinion of this House, the government must address the alarming growth in the number of unemployed Canadians and the increasing number of Employment Insurance claimants; confirm its commitment to a social safety net to help regular Canadians through tough times and bring forward reforms to Employment Insurance rules to expand eligibility and improve benefits, including: (a) eliminate the two-week waiting period; (b) reduce the qualifying period to a minimum of 360 hours of work, regardless of the regional rate of unemployment; (c) allow self-employed workers to participate in the plan; (d) raise the rate of benefits to 60% and base benefits on the best 12 weeks in the qualifying period; and (e) encourage training and re-training.
There is nothing in there about extending benefits further.
That was the discussion back in the spring. It was a very long discussion in the House that dominated many question periods. It was called for in private members' bills and in opposition day motions.
Outside of the House, we heard the premiers, economists and labour unions. We heard everyone saying that we had to do something. The first thing they always mentioned was the unfairness of the system, particularly in a difficult economic time, for people who simply were unable to qualify.
As recently as Monday, my colleague on the human resources committee, the member for Chambly—Borduas, brought forward a bill that called for many of those same things.
In June Parliament was paralyzed and the country was on the verge of having an election until the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister said, “Let us try to make an effort. Let us try to take this out of question period and put it into a room where people can discuss ideas”. The two things that were going to be discussed were regional fairness, from the Liberals, and extending EI to the self-employed, from the Conservatives. Those were the two issues.
What happened? On June 17 this EI working group, called a blue ribbon panel, was formed to look at those two issues. I was announced, my colleague, the member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine was the other member along with Kevin Chan, a very distinguished member of the office of the Leader of the Opposition. We were the three members. The minister was announced by the Prime Minister.
Two weeks later the other two members of the Conservative Party were announced. That was two weeks after June 17, so we were already into the summer.
We had a tele-conference. The minister said, “I cannot meet for two weeks. I have a vacation”. We were going to meet the next week and the other member of the Conservative Party said, “I've got a vacation too”, so we had to delay it again.
We had our first full briefing on July 14 which was a technical briefing. The minister in the House just said that we only had one position and she had all kinds. The minister presented nothing. There still is not a Conservative proposal to that group. If there is, she knows where my office is. She can send it. We still have not seen a proposal from the Conservatives.
On that day, July 14, in Ottawa we asked a series of questions of the working group. We asked it to cost 360 hours on a temporary basis. We also said, “Give us the cost of going to 390 hours, give us the cost of going to 420 hours, give us the cost of eliminating the three month regional rate system which penalizes people who lose their jobs on the front end of an economic downturn”.
My colleague from Montreal said, “Maybe we should look at the extension of benefits. We could at least look at it. Look at what they are doing in the United States”. That was a Liberal idea on July 14. We have it in writing, Mr. Speaker. I would be happy to send it to your office because I know you are a learned man.
We also asked, “Where is the position on the self-employed, which is your position?”. The Conservatives even promised it in the last election. They said that the Conservative government would extend EI benefits for maternal parental benefits for self-employed people.
The Conservatives said that they could not give us that information. We asked, “You can't tell us what it will cost, you must have cost it for your platform”. They said they could not give us that because it belongs to the Conservative Party of Canada.
I said, “You've got a department and you've got all kinds of people”. Whenever the minister would come to the human resources committee, she would bring a whole boatload of good people in whom we have faith when they are properly directed. The Conservatives said that they cannot give us that information.
We still do not know what that would have cost, concerning the self-employed. That was the Conservative proposal. They said to the Leader of the Opposition, “We want to look at the self-employed based on what we promised in the last election”. We got nothing.
On July 23 we had our first full meeting of the EI working group. We had agreed before that there would be certain protocols followed. The Conservatives would give us documents in advance, we would look at them, and we would all come prepared to discuss them. They would table drafts and we got them at the meeting.
I talked to the minister four or five days before. She was king enough to call when she got back from vacation. She said, “Why don't we present on the self-employed and you present on regional fairness”.
We presented on regional fairness. We had a long discussion and all six members of the working group agreed that we should get information on a number of areas. I will come to the exciting part about that later, which is that we never got that information either. We agreed on protocols and we did not get it.
We had a full discussion. There was no proposal from the Conservatives on the self-employed. We agreed to have three meetings in August. That is what our group did.
The meeting on August 6 was a beauty. We arrived at the meeting. The Conservatives provided their costing of 360 hours. They brought it to the meeting, but they gave it to reporters beforehand. I can show members. I have it here. It indicates on the bottom that it is not for distribution. Maybe they meant they were not going to distribute it to wholesalers across the country or something like that, but they gave it to the media who did not take it seriously. The Conservatives said that the 360 hour costing would be four billion and some dollars. Everybody else said it would be $1.5 billion.
The Conservatives said it would be $4 billion. How did they get to that number? They would not show us the work. When I was in school, I was not great at math and I was always told to show the work. I was not very good at that. It made it harder for me to guess. The Conservatives did not show their work. It was not the department that did not want to show it. It was the minister who did not want to show it. No answers were given to our questions. They leaked a document that was not for distribution. We responded to that.
On August 13 there was another table drop of documents. They brought in new costing for the 360 hours, which again was inflated. They refused to separate the hard, static cost from what they referred to as the estimated potential labour market impact. They said that if EI was changed, there would be an impact on the labour market. There are a couple of problems with that. The Parliamentary Budget Officer picked that one out fairly easily.
The Conservatives said that back in the 1970s the changes made to liberalize EI increased the unemployment rate by 2%. They are saying it will happen again. Let us picture that. Somebody out there who has a job is just itching to leave that job in order to get, for a maximum of 36 weeks, 55% of what he or she was making. It is an insult to Canadians to suggest that is what Canadians would want to do. It is on a temporary basis, not something that goes on forever. In the 1970s people could quit a job and get EI, but that cannot be done now. There is a whole host of differences.
Again, there was nothing on the self-employed.
On August 20 we arrived at the meeting. Again, we were given documents. There was no information in advance. We said that we would have to go away and look at them. That was probably another time the Conservatives suggested to themselves that we would not come back. The Conservatives did not give us information. They were not treating us seriously. There were no proposals. We kept going back, and going back, and going back.
We looked at some points at issue. That meeting, very significantly, was when the minister confirmed that in spite of the protocols of the EI working group which was that we would all submit our questions, the questions would go to the department through a secretariat and the answers would come back, she said that she had told the department not to answer those questions. Why would she tell the department that? Well, we are not going there anyway. We all agreed, including the minister, that we would get questions answered. The minister decided by herself that she did not like that.
That is the EI working group. In 10 weeks there were no serious proposals. Protocols were overridden.
On many occasions we offered to meet more often. It was not just for the joy of the company of the member for Nepean—Carleton and the minister. We felt that this was something serious and we should meet.
We suggested that we meet all day on August 19 and 20, or at least meet in the morning starting at 9 o'clock on the Thursday so we could seriously get at this stuff. We did not meet.
On August 20 we said that if we were not going to get information, we wanted to know to whom we could go for an independent analysis of what is going on.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer is an independent officer of this Parliament. We sent him the information about our proposals. He sent a letter to the department asking if it could back up the information by a certain date. The department could not do that. He did his analysis, and I will quote from that now:
The Government's total cost estimate, including static and dynamic costs, presented to the EIWG on August 14 of $2.425 billion overstates the cost of the proposed 360-hour national standard of EI eligibility as--
The Parliamentary Budget Officer went on to say that he believes that the government's dynamic cost estimate is flawed. He said that only the static cost should be considered because the proposed change to the EI system is in effect for only one year and not longer. In the opinion of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the $1.148 billion static cost estimate is a reasonable estimate of the costs of the proposed 360 hour national standard of eligibility. I repeat that the $1.148 billion static cost is a reasonable estimate.