Mr. Speaker, I am glad to have a chance to comment on Bill C-542 because, while I applaud anybody bringing forward ideas in this place, I think that this one is significantly flawed.
The bill would create an act to establish a national urban workers strategy to be developed by a task force of the ministers of Employment and Social Development, Labour, National Revenue, Industry and the President of the Treasury Board. That is a recipe for more bureaucracy with little to show as a result.
Though it purports to be an national urban workers strategy, the bill is nothing more than a collection of vague generalities about reducing this, raising that, and maybe broadening or extending a few other things. It starts off by telling us that its provisions would apply to all workers in Canada, but then it adds “with particular attention to urban workers”. I have no problem with supporting all workers in Canada, and I will talk about that a little bit more later. However, is it really a national urban workers strategy? It is this kind of vaguely worded proposal that does not reflect well on Parliament, in my view, and the thoughtful and thorough approach that we should taking with private members' bills.
The bill appears to apply to every Canadian who works. On the surface, that is certainly not a bad idea. It appears to apply to them whether they live in the city or the country, work as a bicycle messenger or in an office, operate a farm or drive a truck. It uses words like “vulnerable” and “precarious” to describe the economic interests of the people that it says it wants to help, though it does not offer any specifics about how significant the problems are and how to improve things.
For something called a strategy, the bill does not contain anything that is strategic at all. For example, the bill says that we should be reducing the hours of employment required to qualify for employment insurance benefits. It is nice to see that the opposition has not forgotten about its $6-billion, 45-day work year. It does not say by how much it should be reduced, though. Would the opposition go even further than the previously misguided 45-day proposal? Would it be 35? How many hours? Would it be 1, 10 or 100? This does merit careful consideration, given the labour market impacts and the potential cost to premium payers.
We need to be working collaboratively with all players in the labour market, including businesses and workers, to ensure that Canadians have access to fulfilling employment and that they are encouraged to actively pursue education and employment.
The bill also says that we should be raising the level of EI benefits, but, again, it does not offer any indication as to how much. Would it be another $2 a week, $20 a week or $200 a week? We do not know. Once again, the opposition shows its desire to raise job-killing payroll taxes that are paid for by employers and employees.
The vague nature of the content is only my first concern. Where I think this bill would do the most damage is by simply ignoring anything and everything that has been done over the past several years to help Canadians improve their lives. Surely, it makes more sense to take stock of where we are before starting on the next big plan. Our plan for the past nine years has been simple: trade, training and tax cuts.
Let us start with the big-ticket item of tax cuts. Putting more money back into the pockets of hard-working Canadians and making life more affordable for families is essential to jobs and growth. That is why our government has cut taxes over and over again. The opposition has said that it will raise them, over and over again.
We have reduced the lowest personal income tax rate to its lowest level since John Diefenbaker was prime minister. I can remember that, if only vaguely. We also increased the amount of the basic personal deduction. I was not paying taxes then.
We have cut the GST twice, from 7% to 6% and down to 5%. We have brought in pension income splitting, which applies to millions of Canadian families and gives them more options about how to live their lives. We have created tax credits to support working, low-income individuals and families, public transit users, first-time home buyers and families caring for disabled relatives.
Most recently, we proposed a new family tax cut and enhanced the universal child care benefit and child care expense deduction. These benefits will help every single Canadian family with children under 18. That represents 100% coverage and many millions of Canadian families. Today, because of tax relief and benefit increases introduced by our government, the average two-earner family of four is better off by some $6,600. That is not a vague generalization. It is real money in the pockets of real people who need it, wherever they live in the country.
At the same time, our government increased the transfers we make to the provinces and territories to help pay for the social programs that Canadians want and need. These transfers will amount to an all-time high of almost $68 billion in 2015-16, and they will continue to grow year over year. Canadians take a lot of pride in these social programs, because how we treat those who are less well-off really matters.
That is why we brought in tax relief for seniors, some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The record there speaks for itself.
The guaranteed income supplement for the lowest-income seniors was increased up to $600 annually for single seniors and to $840 for senior couples. This alone has improved the financial security and well-being of approximately 680,000 seniors across Canada.
More people, particularly low- and middle-income Canadians, are also using RRSPs and tax-free savings accounts to shore up their retirement income over and above their Canada pension plan and old age security amounts. In 2013, nearly 2.7 million seniors had TFSAs, including me, and to help Canadians save even more on a tax-free basis, the recent budget announced an increase in the TFSA annual contribution limit to $10,000.
Contrary to suggestions from across the way, TFSAs are held by over 11 million Canadians, and they are not the supposedly rich few. TFSAs are a terrific vehicle for people as an alternative to the RSP, which is less useful to people as they get older. It is also a great way to shelter money from things like a small inheritance, a house sale, or a withdrawal from a RRIF. In fact, the incidence of low income among seniors has dropped dramatically, from 21.4% in 1980 to just 5.2% in 2011. This is real progress.
The latest budget also introduced a new home accessibility tax credit for seniors and people with disabilities. This 15% non-refundable income tax credit would apply on up to $10,000 of home renovations that allow a senior or a person eligible for a disability tax credit to be more mobile, safe, and functional in their own home.
The government also provides a wide range of support for young people preparing for and getting into the job market. During the 2012-13 academic year, the Canada student loans program gave out upwards of $2.6 billion in loans to approximately 477,000 post-secondary students. Nearly 357,000 students received a total of $695 million in Canada student grants, and most of it went to students from low- and middle-income families.
However, not everyone who studies does so in a multi-year program at a college or university. Some people, particularly those preparing for the trades, need help for shorter terms of education. As attractive as a university degree may seem to many, it is in the trades where Canada's labour shortage is the most acute and where younger people joining the workforce can find high-tech, secure, and very well-paying jobs to secure their own and their young family's future. That is why budget 2015 proposes to extend the Canada student grants to students in programs running for a minimum duration of 34 weeks. This means an additional 42,000 students will be eligible to receive financial help.
The government also has made it a top priority to help Canadians get the skills they need to find and keep good jobs. We introduced the Canada apprentice loan to help more apprentices complete their training, and the Canada job grant to involve employers in better matching skills training to market demand.
For those already in the workforce, we introduced the working income tax benefit, the WITB, a refundable tax credit for working low-income individuals and families.
For those who have lost their jobs, our recent budget also announced an extension of the existing EI working-while-on-claim project. EI recipients are able to earn money while still receiving benefits. The aim of this measure is obviously to help them stay more connected to the labour market.
These are some of the concrete initiatives that we have undertaken to help those who are among the most vulnerable in our society to improve their lives. In fact, this year Canadian families and individuals will receive some $37 billion in tax relief and increased benefits as a result of actions taken since 2006.
Both opposition parties have a one-point plan for Canadians: higher taxes. Our plan is simple: trade, training, and tax cuts.
I hope that all hon. members will agree that $37 billion in real support is de facto a national workers' strategy and much more, and is much better than the vague promises contained in this bill. I hope all hon. members will join me in voting against this bill.