Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to speak on third reading of this important legislation. I begin by congratulating both the current and former ministers of human resources development and their parliamentary secretaries for bringing this legislation forth and for steering it through the House.
I congratulate the officials in the Department of Human Resources Development for preparing such detailed impact analysis and explanations of these measures. I also commend the members of the parliamentary committee which reviewed the legislation as well as those who participated in the social security review the committee carried out in 1994 for their sustained hard work in developing these reforms.
As far as opposition members are concerned, I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Bloc Quebecois members, especially the hon. member for Mercier, the hon. member for Lévis and the hon. member for Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup. While they opposed this bill, they played their role as opposition members with diligence and professionalism, thereby contributing to the enhancement of the reforms in question.
I want to mention as well the exceptional work of the members from Fredericton-York-Sunbury, Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Halifax West and Malpeque whose amendments to Bill C-12 dealing with the fixed divisor, the intensity rule and the problem of discontinuous weeks have greatly improved the bill and the new employment insurance system.
When the former minister of human resources development back in January 1994 unveiled the government's intention to proceed with a comprehensive review of Canada's social security system no one expected it would be easy to achieve these reforms. It would have been difficult at any time but all the more difficult when the fiscal climate required that fewer, not more, resources were available to put into the revamped social programs.
This made the choices more difficult but the need to get the programs right and the need for reform all the more imperative, especially in view of the dramatically changed situation that has taken place in Canada since many of these reforms of the program were put in place.
Central to the reform agenda was the need to modernize and renew the unemployment insurance system. Since it was introduced in 1940 as a system of short term protection against job loss, UI has evolved to become the central pillar of Canada's social security system and for many people in seasonal industries in Canada a regular component of their family income.
Unfortunately there has also been growing evidence that UI has become an obstacle to job creation. Not only has the level of premiums needed to finance UI benefits been a drag on small businesses' ability to create jobs, but the level of benefits have created distortions in the economies of communities most in need of job growth.
Observers have argued that UI has hindered mobility, encouraged excessive patterns of short term jobs followed by UI at the expense of more stable employment relationships and has discouraged young people from acquiring the skills they need to function effectively in the changing economy.
Yet while there has been much evidence provided to demonstrate the UI program has inhibited job creation and has pointed to the direction for reform, it is much harder to prove in advance that altering the program will lead to the jobs the people dependent on UI want. This has always been the dilemma facing UI reform. Faced with this dilemma, the government's approach to reform has been sound. The changes in Bill C-12 are designed first and foremost to foster a more supportive climate for job creation.
The new employment insurance system recognizes there are great variations in the ability of regions in Canada to create jobs. Hence it does not try to impose a uniformed system on all Canadians.
Instead of generating savings by restricting access to the program, as the government might have done, the EI system broadens access to the program. Not only will more people be covered under EI than under UI, they will have access to a range of income and employment support available even beyond the duration of their benefits. This is because of first hour coverage and that hours replace weeks as the basis for determining eligibility for EI benefits.
With an hourly based system, many part time workers who were unable to qualify under the old system will be able to earn the right to draw EI benefits. As well, it will be easier for seasonal workers who often work long hours during a short period of time to qualify for EI benefits.
It will not be possible to get the same level of benefits with the minimum amount of work to qualify under EI as it has been under UI. Maximum benefit levels will be lower under the new system. However, the new system protects those on lower incomes who are
unemployed through a number of measures, including the family income supplement which will guarantee that individuals who are unemployed can received up to 80 per cent of their earnings replaced through the new system.
As well, the amendments to the initial employment insurance legislation in committee have improved the fairness in this system. For example, the amendments dealing with the fixed divisor and the problem of discontinuous weeks now changes the method of calculating the level of benefits in order to minimize the adverse effects of the problem of discontinuous work in terms of the level of benefits.
The amendments proposed to deal with the decline in benefits under the intensity rule also minimized the impact of that aspect of the program to those on higher incomes by protecting those who fall under the family income threshold stipulated by the program.
The monitoring function, which is an essential feature of the implementation of this legislation, will ensure the government follows very carefully the progress of implementation of this reform and also that we monitor carefully how the impact of these changes will affect those Canadians, particularly those in high unemployment areas. The central purpose of the legislation is to foster a job creation climate, which is what we want to see as a result of the implementation of these reforms.
Many Canadians, including those most closely associated with this debate, are tired of reform. They want stability in these programs. They want this talk of reform to stop. They want to get on with their lives. They want to think of something else. They hope that as this bill heads to the Senate we are nearing the beginning of the end.
I share their fatigue but I do not believe we can stop yet. We still have a lot more work to do when it comes to reshaping Canada's social security system for the 21st century. We are not at the beginning of the end, to quote Churchill, we are more like at the end of the beginning.
The employment insurance system which Bill C-12 describes is an important start toward creating a new system for the 21st century. It has some very important features to it which represent a significant improvement over the existing program, but I still prefer to see it as an important start and not as the final word on this program.
This may seem premature since Bill C-12 is not even passed yet. However, in the time that remains I want to speak about the future and what is next on this agenda.
No one doubts we are living in an era of profound social and economic change and uncertainty. Peter Drucker calls it the age of social transformation. The consequences of the information revolution have penetrated every facet of our lives and in a few short years have dramatically altered the pace and depth of change. Nowhere is the upheaval more pronounced than in the world of work.
Whether one is a qualified pessimist such as Jeremy Riffkin, who predicts massive unemployment and growing income inequality because of the displacement of workers due to this profound change, or whether one is a qualified optimist such as William Bridges, who sees opportunities for growth, creativity and freedom in the new post-job economy, one thing seems clear about the future. The requirements for success in the world of work as we approach the 21st century are different than they have been for the preceding one.
Individuals have to be flexible, willing to make lifelong learning a fact of life, willing to accept a greater degree of instability and uncertainty in terms of their jobs and be much more innovative and entrepreneurial. These are the characteristics that make the difference.
The employment insurance system must do more than simply provide income protection against job loss. It must be a support to individual Canadians.
Under the unemployment insurance system which was developed in the 1940s the reality of the world of work was much different. Unemployment insurance was meant to provide basic short term support to individuals waiting for their temporary unemployment to change, knowing their skills were essentially the ones they would need for the rest of their lives.
The new world of work is much more complicated. The new employment insurance system has to be designed to respond to the growing changes taking place in Canada if it is to work with other policies of the government to create a strong economy and to support individuals in that economy.
Employment insurance represents an important advance in the thinking of the support of the unemployed. Increasingly, individuals need support to keep them moving through a series of changing job situations. New skills, attitudes and flexibility need to be acquired. These are the realities of the world in which we live, realities we as a government must find a system which will enable individuals to produce.
UI and now EI is a national program. It should remain a national program. Reforming this pillar of Canada's social security system should not be seen, as it has too often been, purely in defensive terms, but as a fundamental positive exercise in nation building.