Mr. Speaker, as the deputy critic for consumer protection, it is my great pleasure to speak today on a subject of great importance: financial literacy. There is no better time to talk about this issue because November, which starts tomorrow, is financial literacy month in Canada.
I know that “financial literacy” is not a hook for everyone, but it really matters to Canadians in their daily lives.
Bill C-28 would create a financial literacy leader in Canada. That is an interesting idea, but the bill before us today is pretty much an empty shell because it does not include the kind of meaningful political directions we were hoping to see. Nor does it include a definition of financial literacy, accountability mechanisms or concrete measures to increase financial literacy in Canada. That is a real shame.
Having read the bill, I have a number of questions. For example, what is the Minister of Finance's definition of financial literacy? No doubt they will say that financial literacy is having the knowledge, skills and self-confidence to make responsible financial decisions. However, such a simplistic definition gets in the way of creating a real strategy to address this complicated issue. We need a strategy for the medium and long terms. This bill does not come through.
Who is responsible for helping Canadians improve their financial literacy? A number of interveners have recommended ways to improve Canadians' financial knowledge. For example, the banks have created a number of initiatives to help Canadians learn more about this issue. Unfortunately, those same banks are responsible for the problem. Messages promoting healthy financial habits are too easily eclipsed by financial industry advertising about easy credit.
At a time when the number of financial products is growing faster than the need for them—there is no denying that this is true—it is extremely important to be well informed about financial matters. Financial concepts are often complicated and can be confusing for the consumer after a while or when the time comes to evaluate whether or not a product is suitable. Information provided to the client must be clearer in terms of content and presentation.
Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, summarized the situation very well: “Canadians need better government policy rather than lectures on how to save money.” The government is ignoring the harmful conduct of financial institutions.
As the main source of this difficult to understand information, the financial industry must improve the clarity of its communications. That was one of the recommendations made by the Task Force on Financial Literacy that is not in the bill.
The task force report to the minister states:
Canadians need financial information and advice that is relevant, understandable and engaging, and we believe governments and financial services providers have a responsibility to ensure that their communications meet these criteria.
Improving financial skills must be a lifelong endeavour. According to the task force experts, students should receive basic financial education. We cannot talk about financial literacy without deploring the lack of resources for youth. We are talking about elementary and secondary school students. It is a loss that economics is no longer taught in Quebec's secondary schools, because it is at that age that young people begin making many financial decisions.
Earlier, I heard the member for Burlington say that this should be taught in university. Personally, I believe that it should be taught at a younger age. It should already be part of their education. This reminds us that it is important that we accept this responsibility and take action now.
Many of these young people have started working and are continually exposed to consumerism and credit, without always having the tools they need to really understand the choices available to them. I will not talk about the fine print at the bottom of the page since it is not always easy to understand the preconditions and other similar elements.
James Clancy, president of the National Union of Public and General Employees, expressed an opinion in this regard that I share. He said that educating the public about finances, even at a young age, is good. Giving them a fighting chance to keep some savings in their bank accounts—through reduced banking fees, lower credit card interest rates or regulating industries—would be impressive. The government should focus on making serious changes to ease the burden on families and communities, and that is exactly what the NDP is proposing.
Canada's Task Force on Financial Literacy made 30 recommendations, one of which involved the creation of a financial literacy leader position. This bill does not take into consideration the other 29 recommendations.
The Conservatives do not seem to want to seriously tackle this problem since, if they did, they would have added some of the task force's other recommendations to this bill, including the creation of an advisory board that would include groups of workers and volunteers, as well as educators—in short, people who have expertise on the ground, the people the Conservatives should be listening to but ignore in many instances.
I would like to talk about another phenomenon related to financial literacy and that is the indebtedness of retirees. This seems to be a growing phenomenon.
Option consommateurs, an organization that I met with recently and that I commend, is currently conducting an awareness campaign to encourage Canadians to increase their knowledge of personal finance. The organization has noted that, unfortunately, more and more retirees are finding themselves in a precarious financial situation because they do not have enough savings for their retirement. What is more, this situation is only going to get worse when the age of eligibility for old age security increases from 65 to 67, another one of the Conservatives' bad decisions, another decision that is going to cause harm.
The NDP has a real plan to solve the problem of financial security for Canadian retirees. We are going to strengthen the guaranteed pension plans in Canada and Quebec, thereby giving Canadians an acceptable level of guaranteed income during retirement.
Furthermore, why not start up a national dialogue on the reasons why the houses we live in should be treated not as investments, but simply as roofs that all Canadians should be able to have over their heads? Retirees are not the only ones whose financial situation is deteriorating. A few days ago, Statistics Canada increased its estimate of the household debt ratio. This rate is now at 160% of disposable income. This higher level of debt makes individuals more vulnerable to economic shocks. So why is the financial burden on households increasing? The reason is easier access to credit, as well as the fact that the cost of living is increasing but wages are stagnating. This is the result of this government's ineffective economic policies.
Once again, and we have seen this many times, this government would rather lower the corporate tax rate, claiming that that will create jobs, instead of giving a tax credit to businesses that create jobs. That is what the Conservative government does.
If this government cares about protecting consumers, it should implement regulations on credit cards, so we can impose a cap on interest rates and eliminate the excessive fees paid by consumers.
Considering the lack of enthusiasm for financial literacy shown in recent years—or even decades—by the Minister of Finance and his colleagues, they need help, and a financial literacy leader position could help Canada at least take a small step in the right direction. We will continue to push the government to go further, because even though it has made a step in the right direction today, there is still a long way to go.
The NDP proposed some amendments in committee, in order to address some flaws in the bill, such as adding a bilingualism requirement and adding provisions that clearly define the meaning of financial literacy and require more accountability from the financial literacy leader. However, the Conservatives rejected all of our suggestions. They flat out rejected the six amendments proposed by the NDP.
We are very concerned about the fact that there is no explicit requirement that the incumbent of this position be bilingual. We think that if someone is responsible for improving financial literacy across Canada, he or she should be able to communicate in French and English.
As my hon. colleague from Sudbury said earlier, the NDP believes it is possible to find a financial literacy leader who is competent, highly qualified and bilingual. He thinks that can be done for other positions too, such as government officers.
We would not be shooting ourselves in the foot if we hired highly qualified, bilingual people. On the contrary, we would be showing the whole world that we are proud of our two official languages: English and French.
That is clearly an advantage in undertaking dialogue with other countries, particularly on these issues. Speaking two languages is an advantage. It would be good for the government to understand that and take it to heart as my party and I have done.
In conclusion, Canada would be better off if Canadians improved their knowledge of the economy and made responsible financial decisions. To make that happen, we need a strategy that calls for a concerted effort on the part of clients, schools and various organizations, including those in the industry. That is why we need an advisory council made up of union and financial institution representatives and educators. That is worth repeating.
I would like to share some information. A Conservative member told me that one of my strengths is being able to cite experts in the field. I will indulge him by citing a few experts who support what we are proposing.
According to Barrie McKenna, a business columnist for the Globe and Mail, waiting for financial literacy to fill the void is like asking ordinary Canadians to be their own brain surgeons and airline pilots. The dizzying array of financial products, mixed with chaotic and increasingly irrational financial markets, makes the job of do-it-yourself financial planning almost impossible, no matter how literate you are. The average credit card agreement is as intuitive as quantum physics. Canadians are constantly bombarded with pitches to take on more debt, whether it is right for them or not. They are often blindly steered toward high-fee products and complex financial instruments. The accompanying disclosure statements are written by, and for, lawyers. There is a sounder and no doubt less costly path, but it does not suit the financial services industry or many business groups.
He goes on to say that Ottawa could mandate plain-English disclosure. Working with the provinces, the government could enhance regulation of industry sales incentives and defined-contribution pensions. Ottawa could strengthen the CPP, forcing Canadians to save more money for retirement, while benefiting from the CPP's low administrative costs.
Of course I agree with some of what he says. However, I cannot stress bilingualism enough in this area, as that is what is important. Mr. McKenna clearly highlighted the importance of understanding that, at present, consumers are bombarded by financial products. We must all do our part in order to make financial information easier to understand.
Thirty per cent of Canadian families do not have retirement savings outside of the Canada pension plan. Twenty-five per cent of Canadians have accumulated more debt in the past year. Never before has Canadian household debt been so high. Now more than ever the government must implement policies to help people and families in debt. That is important.
Financial literacy is an important aspect of the consumer protection framework. As I said earlier, this bill does not go far enough. The fact that many Canadians do not have any savings and the rise in consumer debt are symptoms of the discrepancy between the rise in the cost of living and salaries, rather than financial illiteracy. Too many Canadians live paycheque to paycheque. This situation proves that the government is not taking a leadership role and that it is incapable of addressing issues that are truly important to Canadians. The government has never implemented strict laws and regulations to protect consumers. And this bill falls far short of providing real help to consumers.
We believe that the best way to support consumers is to establish a single window consumer protection department or agency that would handle all consumer issues. If the government really wants to protect consumers, then it should move forward with credit card regulations and implement regulations that would cap interest rates and eliminate excessive fees paid by consumers.
In closing, I would like to briefly talk about retirement. Many retirees have more and more debt. The population is aging and many people are worried about what we will do for them. The NDP has an effective plan for financial security in retirement. We would strengthen the Canada and Quebec guaranteed pension plans by gradually doubling benefits in an affordable manner to a maximum of $1,920 a month—this is not a gold rush—thereby providing Canadians with an adequate level of guaranteed income during their retirement.