Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola.
Canada is facing a critical moment in the continuing COVID crisis. Millions of Canadians are still in need of emergency funding of one sort or another. Although the early soaring numbers with tragic loss of life in seniors homes and beyond were brought down by the first lockdown with a range of precautions and restrictions, as imperfect as it might have been, we are concerned now about the sharp resurgence of infection in some urban areas and among certain groups whose compliance with the advice of public health officials and government at all levels relaxed far too soon.
The COVID crisis is not just a health crisis. COVID has taken a terrible toll on our Canadian economy, as it has on economies around the world. Canada today has the highest unemployment rate in the G7, despite having almost the highest spending in the G7. With the amendment to Bill C-2, now before us today, Canada's deficit and debt would soar to historic record new levels.
The government must recognize that a significant number of businesses and industries, despite COVID restrictions and precautions, have gradually been able to safely reactivate their workplaces to bring back workers safely and fire up their respective corners of the economy. Over the past month, I visited large industrial manufacturers and small businesses, and I have been impressed at how they are safely, defiantly, coping with the challenging new realities of their workplaces. However, I have also heard from a range of small, medium and large employers and members of chambers of commerce and boards of trade who say that government needs to balance essential emergency financial support with meaningful incentives to return to work where it is safe to do so.
When we first saw Bill C-2 last week, after six weeks of prorogation with the Liberals in hiding from scandalous revelations in committee, the estimated costs of the post-CERB expanded benefits were enormous: $37 billion in one year. The estimated costs are now in the mid-$40 billion range with another $17 billion in ongoing COVID program spending attached to this bill. We are debating almost $60 billion in new spending in two days. The deficit for 2021 is now certain to be well past $400 billion.
There is no question that the three principal elements of Bill C-2, the Canada recovery benefits act, would provide a lifeline to millions of workers and folks left out of earlier support. The government's decision to effectively embrace our Conservative back-to-work bonus proposed in June is an overdue step forward, a work incentive that would allow workers to earn beyond the benefit payments with a 50¢ on the dollar repayment of earnings if they exceed $38,000 in annual income. However, the original expectation of a minimum taxable payment of $400 a week expired when the Liberals caved in to NDP demands that $400 a week was not enough.
The Liberals caved in again on Friday when the NDP demanded more, a two-week paid sick leave demand, without any consideration by the House or Parliament of its possible negative impact on Canada's struggling economy. One must consider the continuing disincentives discouraging many healthy workers from safely returning to workplaces that can provide assurance of strict adherence to public health guidelines.
In my province of Ontario, under the new legislation an individual who works full time for just over three weeks will be able to access EI for six months at $500 a week. An Ontarian working full time at minimum wage, $14 an hour, receives $525 a week.
That said, the three pillars of the Canada recovery benefits act are needed: first, the CRB, the Canada recovery benefit for workers who are self-employed or not eligible for EI; second, the CRCB, the Canada recovery caregiving benefit for eligible Canadian households where a parent cannot work because they must care for children or a high-risk dependent; and third, the CRSB, the Canada recovery sickness benefit for workers who are sick or must self-isolate because of COVID-19.
Unfortunately, the time wasted in prorogation and the closure vote tomorrow, a most offensive application of the legislative guillotine, prevents the due diligence these benefits deserve.
The last-minute amendment to the sickness benefit that the Liberals caved into Friday, which provides for what the act calls a “leave of absence”, lacks answers to abundant questions on how it may be used or abused.
The amendment says that “every employee is entitled to and shall be granted the leave of absence” from work of “up to two weeks—or, if another number of weeks is fixed by regulation” if the employee is unable to work because, one, “they contracted or might have contracted COVID-19”; two, they have underlying conditions, are undergoing treatments or have contracted other sicknesses that, in the opinion of a medical practitioner, nurse practitioner, person in authority, government or public health authority would make them more susceptible to COVID-19; or three, “they have isolated themselves on the advice of their employer, a medical practitioner, nurse practitioner, person in authority, government or public health authority for reasons related to COVID-19”.
There are huge legitimate, logical questions in these provisions. Pre-existing underlying conditions like asthma, diabetes, weakened immune systems, etc., don't go away in two weeks, and the provision for cabinet to extend coverage weeks is unlimited. There are some very big questions here.
As well, employment lawyers and experts have long raised red flags about this intrusion into areas of provincial jurisdiction, because most workers are governed provincially. One noted Ontario employment lawyer, Lior Samfiru, says that new incentives may be required to provinces and to employers in the form of tax cuts to get the buy-in in those jurisdictions. There have been, as well, fears expressed by economists and employers that 10 paid sick days could have a serious negative impact on productivity, that said with an eye to some public service unions' exploitation of already-contracted sick days. Then there is the unanswered question of monitoring and enforcement of a violation of the program criteria.
All of these issues should have and could have been explored during the six weeks of the WE scandal turtling by the Liberal government, rather than the clumsy presentation of Bill C-2, followed by the Liberals' second desperate concession to the NDP, and this debate and tomorrow's taking place in the shadow of the legislative guillotine of closure.
As I said at the top, millions of Canadians need emergency funding and many of them are caught now between the ending of CERB and when they will be able to access the new programs. They are caught in dire circumstances again because of the latest self-inflicted stumble by the Liberal government.
Conservatives believe extraordinary emergency funding has been needed and continues to be needed to support Canadian workers, employers and all those in need of support from the start of this COVID crisis, but we lament the lack of transparency and accountability of the Liberal government, the unacceptable neutering of Parliament, the time lost during the unnecessary prorogation for all-party consideration, debate and more reasonable outcomes, and the rush now to confect legislation on the run in the interest of self-serving partisan survival.
Even as we all struggle to do our part to deal with the resurgence of infection spread in certain areas, Conservatives lament the lack of a meaningful recovery plan with the investments, the tax cuts and regulatory improvements that will build competitiveness, incentivize workers and employers, and make Canada a better place to invest, to rebuild and to safely live.