Mr. Speaker, it is always a pleasure to be here to speak to issues, especially things that we went on record some months ago as supporting, without having to listen to some of the rhetoric. I heard my colleague behind me use words that are inappropriate in the House, and I will just leave it at that.
It has been suggested that we on this side of the House are not supporting this bill. It has also been suggested that this has been a fast process. The bill was introduced in June. This issue was brought up first by the media, by the way, not by anybody else, in March. It took until June for the legislation to be introduced. Here we are on November 16 finally getting a bill passed. That has a lot to do with the fact that the committee worked very well with the intent of getting the bill back into the House. Otherwise who knows how long it would take to get it here?
Some of us are concerned and frustrated when we hear the other side say that we are not helping. We are the ones who have been pushing this forward since it was first announced in the media. The government has been advancing it at nothing short of a snail's pace. Let us be clear on that point.
The committee has done a good job. After all, it was a little more than a month since the committee was asked to examine Bill C-31. Members of the committee took the bill seriously. They did their homework and asked questions to make sure that we avoided unintended consequences. Hence the bill is now before us and it could be passed very quickly here and in the other place. It is fair to say that the committee members did a quick and thorough job of reviewing the bill, contrary to, as I indicated earlier, what the government did not do.
My primary concern stems back to the pace that business is being advanced in the House. A proactive government would move quickly on issues that concern Canadians and parliamentarians.
Most members know that Bill C-31 is legislation that is relatively simplistic from a legal perspective, which does not happen too often. It is not particularly controversial, nor is it divisive in its scope. After all, the entire bill, in both English and French, is less than six pages in total length. It is a very small bill.
Put another way, after more than five months of working on this legislation, we have successfully completed just 25% of the legislative process. Imagine, just 25% in five months; that is a snail's pace if there ever were one. If this is the best we can do, Bill C-31 will not pass into law until July 2012, long after when every reasonable person expects the next election to be held. We know what will happen. An election will be called; everything will die on the order paper and nothing will ever get done. This could have been done in September. The bill could have passed in September and gone to the other place. It is not often that we are asking the government why it is not moving something forward faster, but this is a very simple and small bill and it could have been passed by both houses by now.
This means the government wants to talk about this bill more than it wants to pass it. It wants to say that it is tough on crime more than it wants to back its rhetoric with real action. Most particularly, the government is clearly more interested in optics than it is in the elements of governing as responsible Canadians.
Permit me to be completely clear though. We are of the belief that the changes are long overdue and we do not oppose them. In fact, we support them. As I have said before, from the Liberals' perspective, we are certainly prepared to fast-track this legislation. I indicated in June when the minister introduced the legislation that we were prepared to fast-track this bill.
When I last spoke in this House on Bill C-31, my primary concern was simple. I wanted to make sure there were no unintended consequences attached to the bill. It is a requirement for all of us as legislators to ensure there are no unintended consequences on any legislation that is introduced in the House. Even though many of us had strong feelings from the start when the media flagged this issue, our government was not aware of this issue any more than anybody else was. It was members of the media, in the kind of work they do, who discovered Mr. Olson was receiving old age security cheques, which clearly bothered all of us.
While I was anxious to punish the guilty and to ensure that tax dollars were not being wasted, I also needed to be sure we were not punishing the spouses for the crimes of their partners. We all know that the spouses pay a big enough price and I do not believe any of us wanted to add to that difficulty.
It seems that the committee members were satisfied by hearing witnesses from various organizations throughout Canada. They listened to all sides of the issues to make sure that Bill C-31 would not have a negative impact on the spouses, and that the spouses, families and children would be protected.
In my mind there would seem to be no other reason that we would not send Bill C-31 to the other place. If the Prime Minister were truly committed to its speedy passage, he could direct his Conservative-dominated Senate to pass the legislation immediately. It could all be done before we rose for Christmas, if he really wanted it done. Of course, the Prime Minister has little interest in this approach, so one would wonder how serious he is about the issue, or is he just more interested in looking as though he were serious about the issue? That is for the Canadian people to decide at the appropriate time. After all, this is just another in a recent string of examples of the government's relentless drive for good optics.
According to the recently released public accounts, lapsed funding for the victims of crime initiative last year amounted to just under $4 million, or 45% of the available funds. That means in 2009-10, the Conservatives spent $4.8 million helping victims of crime versus $6 million which they spent this year to advertise how they helped those victims of crime.
One of the motions that was introduced at committee was that the $2 million, the amount of money saved by not sending the pension to the likes of Mr. Olson, should be given to the victims of crime organization so that we could help victims in as many ways as possible. However, my understanding is that the amendment was not passed at committee.
Those commercials we continue to see in the government's massive advertising campaign fail to mention that when the Prime Minister prorogued Parliament, he killed his entire crime agenda that we had heard so much about for so many years, much of which had the Liberals' support. However, once Parliament was prorogued, all of that fell off the agenda, just as this bill would if the Prime Minister were to prorogue Parliament tomorrow.
People have to understand what proroguing Parliament really does. The legislation that all of us work for, although not all of us necessarily support, is lost once Parliament prorogues. Every single bill at that time was back to square one. When Parliament resumed sitting in the spring, each one of them had to be reintroduced, one by one. That delays them, because they have to go through the same process again: first reading, second reading, consideration at committee, report stage, third reading and then they go to the other place. All that so-called big crime agenda that was necessary was lost. Some of it was not as good as it could have been; there were lots of problems with some of it, but we were supporting it. Then we had to start all over again in the spring. Yet if we listen to the Prime Minister's multi-million dollar ad campaign, we would swear that all of that legislation was in effect right now, which is simply untrue.
Call it retail politics, spin, wedge politics or whatever one wishes, but Canadians are being misinformed again and again by the government. I say it is time for that nonsense to stop and for the government to be honest about the kind of legislation that is being passed and the timelines in doing that.
In simple terms, Bill C-31 seeks to amend the Old Age Security Act to preclude incarcerated persons from receiving benefits under this act and at the same time to maintain entitlement to benefits for their spouse or common law partner. When we talk about unintended consequences, we had to ensure that the spouses and children of these individuals would not be harmed with the passage of Bill C-31.
As I have already said, the latter of these elements is, in my estimation, a pivotal thrust of this particular piece of legislation. We should never be too eager to cast a net without first ensuring that only those deserving of punishment are actually forced to endure it, and not their spouses and children.
Despite our often fierce partisan differences in the House, today we are looking at an issue that should unite all of us regardless of our political affiliation.
As we know, the old age security pension is intended to help seniors pay for their housing, clothing, food and transportation, which are expectations that many seniors struggle with each and every day.
I just came from a meeting at the industry committee where we were talking about Bill C-501. This is a bill that was put forward by one of my colleagues in the other party to try to deal with pensioners and bankruptcy collapse, to deal with what happens to people who work for companies that go bankrupt. This bill deals with the impacts on current pensioners and would-be pensioners. It deals with the devastation of trying to live on $1,200 a month and the many pensioners who are in poverty as a result of their company's going bankrupt.
This is a call on the government and all parliamentarians, and we were all very serious this morning regardless of party, to try to find solutions to the problem of Nortel, for example, and other companies. How do we better protect pensions and people's contributions in this country?
For thousands of seniors who are struggling with these growing bills on a fixed income, the thought that convicted and imprisoned criminals would be eligible for the same OAS benefit as they are is quite offensive and totally unacceptable for all of us.
Moreover, given that the old age security is meant to help a recipient pay for housing, clothing, food and transportation, it seems unnecessary for prisoners to get a cheque given that their housing, clothing, food and transportation are already paid for as a condition of their incarceration. It does not make a lot of sense that we give the same amount of money to seniors out there having to pay rent and buy their own groceries and clothing and all the rest of it, and yet people in prison, regardless of what they are there for, get all of that plus their old age security.
One senior said, “Maybe I should go to jail. At least I would have some extra money and all of my needs would be taken care of”. I assured that senior that once the gate was closed it might not seem like such a good idea.
As a legislator, I see the current reality to be redundant, unacceptable and, as I indicated earlier, something that should be changed without delay, without delay. I would like to hear the government move this through at votes tonight, move it into the Senate and ask the Conservative-dominated Senate to pass Bill C-31 immediately. This is precisely why I am of the belief that Bill C-31 should be advanced, as I indicated before.
I last addressed this issue in June when the minister introduced the legislation. I said at that time that I would not seek to draw this process out for the sake of speaking longer in the House. I did not intend to do that then, nor do I intend to do it today. What is needed today is action and it is needed now.
For the sake of clarity, contrary to my colleague's asking if we would vote for it, the Liberal position has been on the record since June, maybe before that, that we would support this kind of legislation. So that there is no question whether we will, the Liberal side of the House supports the stated notions of Bill C-31 unequivocally.
The next thing we know, though, there will be a massive email campaign going around to everybody in Canada saying to go after the Liberals, NDP and the Bloc because they may not support Bill C-31. Let me be clear. We have indicated from the beginning that we support it. We are going to continue to support it. In fact, we are asking the government to fast-track it through the Senate.
We agree that convicted and incarcerated criminals should not receive societal benefits, like the monthly old age security cheque. On a purely personal note, I would take this belief one step further.
I, like most Canadians, was horrified as I watched the trial of the former Colonel Williams. This person is now sitting in jail, but upon his formal retirement he could be eligible for a pension that he earned while a member of the Canadian Forces, a time that coincides with the time he committed his heinous crimes. There is something fundamentally wrong with the notion that he will be rewarded on the same scale as Canada's veterans of the war in Afghanistan. There is something terribly wrong with that.
Canada's pension systems, both public and private, need a great deal of attention. The Canada pension plan, old age security, the guaranteed income supplement and the various private options available are good. We are grateful that we have them and that the investments were made, but we need to do better.
We need to examine all facets of these systems in a way that will close the gaps, reduce the redundancies and enhance the benefits for all Canadians. I recently released a white paper on pension reform. That document was the product of more than a year of work by nearly 20 industry and pension specialists of every partisan stripe.
Whether we addressed the creation of a supplementary Canada pension plan, the tightening of regulatory loopholes, the enhancement of regular Canada pension plan benefits or the establishment of a pension bill of rights, the focus was not on politics. It was on substantive pension reform. Our primary focus was, and is, finding ways to make pensions stronger. Some days I wish that example could be adopted more often by the government and this House.
Twenty-eight recommendations later, I am convinced that we have a winning strategy, a comprehensive, multi-generational plan that puts people and their pensions first. The white paper, which can be found on my web page, fits hand-in-glove with Bill C-574, which I introduced on October 1.
Bill C-574 is a pensioners' bill of rights. Since the Mackenzie King government, a Liberal government I should remind the House, first introduced the Old Age Pensions Act 83 years ago, Liberals have fostered a long history of creating, enhancing and expanding pensions available to Canadian seniors.
From old age security, introduced by the Liberal government, to the Canada pension plan of previous Liberal governments and the supplement, also from a previous Liberal government, we understand the extreme importance of protecting and preserving pension security, adequacy and coverage for all deserving and law-abiding Canadians.
Bill C-574 is the next step in that process. Too often, financial illiteracy, inadequate opportunity and economic instability strip away the hard-earned savings of our seniors. That must stop.
Bill C-574 is the first bill of its kind ever proposed to better protect our seniors and their nest eggs. I am proud to have presented it. I clearly hope that all members in this House will adopt it at the appropriate time. I would urge colleagues to take part in that debate on November 23. As always, our seniors are counting on us.
Bill C-31 is yet another step that could be taken down this road. I stand ready to do whatever it takes to achieve these goals, and I look forward to working with my colleagues and with the government to pass measures geared to the same.