Mr. Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your appointment as deputy chairman of the committees of the whole House.
I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the people in my riding of Acadie—Bathurst for their support and their trust in the June 2 federal election. Their support underscores their belief in the government management and the importance of an open democracy, and I will certainly not discuss this today.
Acadie—Bathurst has a population of nearly 100,000 people of all ages and interests. Its linguistic attributes, with anglophone and francophone populations, mark it as a particular spot in Canada.
Mining, forestry and the fisheries are very active and the main driving force of the local economy. Natural resources are however very unstable. The pulp and paper industry has experienced certain difficulties. Nevertheless, things in this industry are on a better footing these days.
The fishing industry is not so well off. Since 1984, fishing has produced little, and this situation has had an alarming effect on communities.
As things currently stand in my region, the future looks vulnerable and difficult. This is why I wish to react to the changes proposed to the Canada pension plan. Bill C-2 proposes increased contributions, the creation of an independent agency to administer the plan and a reduction in benefits to those least well off in our society.
In his press release on the new bill, the Minister of Finance said that the changes would ensure the plan's long term viability, while making it fairer and more affordable for future generations of Canadians.
The Minister of Finance has an odd sense of fairness. He is targeting Canada's most vulnerable people—older women and people with a disability—in favour of his friends on Bay Street in Toronto.
The New Democratic Party finds this option unacceptable. We will not go for the Liberal and Reform Party position, which would increase inequity within Canadian society. The NDP believes that the voters must be consulted before any changes are made to the pension system.
The people of Canada are the ones who will have to live with these changes. They must be given an opportunity to express their views. When one is elected to this House, one is supposed to be able to participate in the debates, and I am really ashamed of what has happened here today.
The changes proposed in this bill hurt Canadians. First, Bill C-2 reduces benefits in several ways. It makes it more difficult to qualify for disability benefits and imposes stricter rules for combining disability and survivor benefits.
Under the existing legislation, one must have worked during at least four out of the past six years to be eligible for CPP disability benefits. If this bill is passed, one will be required to have worked during two of the past three years or five of the past six to be eligible for disability benefits. With the proposed changes, some people who are currently eligible would no longer be eligible.
Another problem is the whole issue of survivor and death benefits. At present, the maximum is set at $3,580 for a person receiving survivor benefits. These have been reduced to $2,500 with the maximum being frozen, and this will be especially harmful to widows and separated women who live alone for a longer time.
Bill C-2 also freezes the low level of earnings that is exempt from CPP contributions. This back door increase of CPP contributions is regressive because it affects people with low levels of earnings the most. The year's basic exemptions, the first $3,500 of earnings, is no longer indexed to inflation which means that the low income workers, many of whom are women, would have to pay more in contributions.
The bill also includes amendments to the CPP's financial provisions and changes the plan into an additional tax and a make-work project for bankers, who are good friends of the Liberals.
Bill C-2 speeds up the planned increase in the contribution rate to the CPP. The rate, which is currently set at 5.85%, will rise to 9.9% by the year 2003, a 73% increase over a six year period. This rapid increase in the contribution rate is a concern for several reasons.
First, the CPP will be refinanced at the expense of low income people, particularly women. To shift responsibility for refinancing the CPP to those who are least able to do so, as our Liberal friends are proposing, is irresponsible and will have a harmful impact on future generations.
This tax will also have to be paid by small businesses, many of which will have a hard time meeting a 73% increase. It will prompt some of them to go underground when it comes to managing their business or hiring employees. Creating an environment that makes the underground economy more attractive is harmful to all Canadians, and this concerns me a great deal.
In addition to their ill-conceived idea of increasing contributions at the expense of the poor, the Liberals will establish the Canada pension plan investment board, whose role will be to manage the reserve fund so as to maximize revenue. However, the Liberals are not telling us that the board will not have the mandate to promote investments in our domestic economy. I support job creation programs, but I have a serious problem when I see that friends of the Liberals, namely bankers, are the ones who will benefit, while ordinary Canadians are still waiting for the Liberals to fulfill their commitments and create jobs for them.
This government keeps promising jobs for all Canadians, but its proposed changes to the CPP's financial provisions mean more power for the big wigs and more hardship for ordinary people.
Let me give an example. Why does the government accept that, when an accident occurs in the workplace, the CPP provides benefits for the injured worker, instead of the workers compensation board? It is a way of abusing the system and still keeping an eye out for their friends.
We must also come to the defence of the universal public pension system. An older population does not mean we must adopt an individualized approach or that we must privatize our public pension system. On the contrary, our European friends offer good examples of societies with older populations that now have public pension plans.
The Liberals have manufactured a crisis around the CPP in order to be able to attack the concept of the universality of our pensions and to save money on the backs of society's weakest members.
The Canadian public pension system is a crucial part of the Canadian social security net. The CPP and the OAS have been particularly important for lower and middle income seniors. It embodies the values Canadians share and ensures a fair redistribution of wealth.
Thanks to public pensions Canada has made tremendous gains in overcoming poverty among senior citizens and has provided much better prospects for retirement with dignity. In the three decades since the CPP was adopted, the poverty rate among Canadians 65 and older fell to 10.9% in 1995 from 33.5% in 1980.
The battle against poverty among seniors is far from over. Today one of every five elderly persons still lives in poverty. In 1993 the poverty rate for seniors increased over the previous year in almost every province. Scaling back CPP and OAS benefits will hurt low and middle income seniors. We have a responsibility to present and future senior citizens to oppose this legislation and protect our public pension plan.
The health of the CPP is directly tied to the rate of economic growth and a good level of employment, which increases the government's revenues. This government's many cuts, high interest rates, the present high rate of unemployment, and modest incomes have done more damage to the CPP than the aging of the population.
It is terrible to see a government that calls itself democratic refusing to let the debate continue, in this House, to get to the bottom of things. It is unacceptable. We were elected to this House to debate legislation. The CPP is of real importance to all Canadians, and the Liberal government turned its back on them today by refusing to allow the debate to continue. That is regrettable. What the Government of Canada has done today is truly shameful.