Mrs. Bev Desjarlais (Churchill, NDP)
Mr. Speaker, it is actually a great opportunity to speak on the budget implementation act and, I am sure much to the chagrin of the governing party, an opportunity to comment on what the budget is lacking and the failure of the budget itself to do what it needs to do to better the situation in the country.
I want to start by speaking first on an issue within the budget that is tied directly to my critic area, that being the issue of the infrastructure funding in the budget and, quite frankly, in past budgets, in that it is and they were severely lacking in the amount of dollars needed for transportation infrastructure and other infrastructure.
Certainly in the area of transportation infrastructure there has been a call throughout the country from the municipalities and the provinces that there has to be some real and serious investment by the federal government into infrastructure. We have heard of the numerous cases where water and sewer infrastructure are needed and where problems have arisen, but in the area of transportation we know wholeheartedly that the situation on a number of the roads throughout the country has reached points of absolute crisis and there are safety issues.
We know that the increased transportation of goods by road has put greater stress on the highways. The government's failure to make these improvements has as a result increased the risk to travellers on the roads, for the transport truck drivers as well as for others on the roads in smaller vehicles. The government, in the course of the last month or so, introduced through the transport minister a blueprint for a transportation vision in the country, “Straight Ahead”. I have stated before that it was sort of like straight ahead and off the cliff, because the highway infrastructure just is not there in a lot of areas. It is an increasingly serious problem.
One can have a wonderful vision but if somewhere in that vision one does not put in place the reality factors that have to be there to make that vision happen, there is just no point in talking about it with any serious approach. Quite frankly, that was certainly the case with the funding for transportation infrastructure in the budget.
As I indicated, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities had called on the government for increased infrastructure dollars at the municipal level, for assistance on roads but also with other infrastructure. I am not going to even try to recall what the exact amount was in this budget, because quite frankly when we looked at the different dollars that the government was suggesting for infrastructure, it was another one of these shell games that it often plays, when it says, “We have given money for this program through infrastructure, we have given money for it this year in this program for infrastructure, and in this one”. The reality is that it really is not the whole amount that it suggests it is putting into infrastructure this year, and it still is not nearly enough to meet the needs of Canadians.
I think the figure we came up with was that it would take something like 190 years to address the infrastructure needs in the country with the support that the federal government gives. While doing that, somehow the government suggests that it is okay to have tax cuts in numerous areas, which will not benefit the entire nation but will certainly benefit some businesses. That is disappointing, not that I want to see Canadians taxed to death, and nobody does, but the Canadians I know, who are more or less the middle income, small and medium sized business owners, do not mind paying their fair share. But they want to see something come back in return.
When we hear of tax cuts benefiting huge corporations that often do not even have head offices in Canada, that do not put in the investment that they need to in Canada, it is disappointing. It was no great surprise to see the Premier of Ontario doing the same thing in his budget announcement this past week, where the company in front of which he did his big advertising campaign for the budget is going to reap huge tax breaks in Ontario within the changes in that budget, the same company that gave him a whole lot of money. The premier in Ontario has chosen to do that but in reality the federal budget does the same thing in a lot of areas and that is disappointing, because it will have a direct impact on so many programs throughout the country.
Certainly the budget is lacking in the area of transportation infrastructure. If the government does not make some serious considerations in that area, it will continually get worse. Municipalities and provinces will feel the pressure to get into a privatized toll type of approach to the highway system. Canadians do not want to see that. Everybody says we have to do it but the bottom line is that we would not have to do it if there were priorities within the government and a real effort to make access available to everyone without those additional user fees in place.
As well, the budget is lacking with respect to the issue of housing, extremely so. I noted in some reading I did yesterday that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities again has called for changes to the whole CMHC mortgage structure. This has been a bone of contention with me for the last year or so.
As I did more reading of the propaganda that comes from CMHC, I saw how it was doing all these wonderful investments in different types of housing and in marketing of housing throughout the world, I was going, “Where the heck are they when it comes to putting in place a good CMHC mortgage structure for Canadians to be able access mortgages?” What about working at lowering the interest rates for mortgages in Canada and making them accessible to more people? What about getting rid of the whole attitude of making sure to get every penny out of everybody without making it possible for a good number of people to access housing?
When I see this stuff about how it is going to do the marketing to other countries, I think that it might be important but quite frankly that is not my vision of what CMHC is intended to do. To me, it is intended to be there to offer a good mortgage setup so Canadians are able to access housing. If it wants to go and do marketing, let industry do it. Let outside business do it. We have put enough money into all these different operations so that we can market this and promote the business aspect outside of Canada. How about promoting things that will benefit Canadians?
There was a situation in the community of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, a one industry town. When the mine decided to close a whole lot earlier than it was supposed to, a number of people were left with mortgages. Some of these people were able to get jobs elsewhere and others were not, but they found that at every step of the road or every mile of the road there was a roadblock put in place. They had the insight and the fortitude to go out and get a job. They had mortgages in Leaf Rapids. Some wanted to turn back their mortgages because they could not afford them. They wanted to be able to go somewhere else, get jobs, work and contribute to the tax base of Canada. They were told that they still had to make the mortgage payments in Leaf Rapids and make them somewhere else with whatever income they were making, which probably was less because they did not have the seniority they previously had. For those people who were able to get jobs, it was a struggle.
What also happened, though, was that a number of people were told that they could get a quit order, that it was recognized that the situation was serious, but to get another mortgage after that they would have to wait for two years or put down 25%. The situation was that a family that had just lost its income, and often two incomes because if one in the family moved the other had to move, was trying to go somewhere else. In some situations in other communities they could not rent places; all they could do was buy, but meanwhile they could not get mortgages.
I would like to see a much more accessible and considerate CMHC mortgage operation than what we have seen. Again the budget did nothing to provide affordable housing throughout Canada to address some of those concerns. It went purely on the whole business aspect: “We are going to get every penny out of you even if we get you into the ground and have to stomp on you a couple of times”.
As well, let me suggest that there were some good things within the budget. One of the things mentioned was the accessibility to caregivers' assistance through the EI program for someone wanting to stay at home and look after a family member. There is going to be some time for people to do that, but to me the time that was offered was absolutely a slap in the face to those caregivers who have to leave their jobs to stay at home to look after a family member. A good number cannot and they want the opportunity to be able to do that. Our health care system is going through a challenging time and we have caregivers who are family members. Quite frankly, a good number of those doing this were women. By the nature of the way things worked, it was mostly the women who were willing to take time off work and stay home and look after a family member. There were men too, but it was mostly women, and there were extremely great financial difficulties.
What they wanted to do seemed simple enough. People are paying EI premiums. It is not as if this is something for nothing. People have paid for that insurance. They wanted to take a reasonable amount of time off to look after a family member at home with a terminal illness or a sick child who required acute care. What we were asking for were some real contributions through the EI program to provide people with reasonable time off. I think that what the government came up with was a six week period.
Anyone dealing with people with acute medical needs or a terminal illness knows that they need someone there for more than six weeks of that time. The challenges and emotions that are involved in that kind of family situation are really tough. What does the government respond with? It says it will give someone six weeks to access EI. This is from a government that has taken a $42 billion surplus out of EI. It says it will give back six weeks. This is not about a person receiving money for nothing. If people pay EI premiums, it is an insurance policy.
I once had a discussion with a previous minister and said that with most insurance policies one looks at ways of enhancing programs. If the funds are available, the program should be enhanced and extend what people can be given. What we saw under this government year after year were cuts to benefits, cuts to EI.
My colleagues from the Alliance have argued for cuts to the premiums that people had to pay in. The government gave them every reason to argue that point because it kept having a surplus and did not give the benefits back. I, on the other hand, as a worker had no objection to paying a few hundred dollars a year for an insurance policy which would ensure that if I did not have my job I would be able to collect EI for a period of time. If I had to access the sick and disabled part of EI, I could do that. If for other reasons I had to access EI, I did not begrudge paying that as a worker. I was able to claim it as a tax deduction.
What benefits do most workers and, for that matter, most businesses receive by the cuts to the premiums? Some would argue they are saving all this money in payroll taxes. A good number of small and medium sized businesses out there benefit through training programs they are able to access through human resources and the EI funds. It was not as if someone did not have the opportunity to gain from dollars going into EI.
As I said, as a worker I quite frankly did not mind paying for an insurance policy that was guaranteed. I did not see it as a tax. It was an insurance policy in the same way that I pay my life insurance. I pay so much money so that if I happen to die in an accident at a certain time a specific amount of money is going to come back to assist my family. If by luck I never have to access that life insurance policy, hallelujah brother, it worked out great. I am not going to ask for the money back because I recognize that it is an insurance policy.
That is what EI was intended to be, an insurance policy, so that if rough times fall upon people they are able to benefit from it. What we have seen time and time again are cuts to the EI program, cuts to the benefits, a few minor cuts to the premiums as a result of pressure, and the fact that there is a $42 billion surplus when what we really should have seen was more money going into the benefits side of the EI program so that women and other family members who wanted to stay at home to look after a sick or terminally ill family member could do that.
There is another aspect that should have been accessed under EI. We have called for this before. There are some workers who have worked for 5, 10 or 15 years who have never had to access EI even for minor things, but so be it. They have paid into EI and they might find that they want to try something different, like increasing their educational opportunities. I want to say that it was nurses in Canada who first brought this to my attention. They wanted the opportunity, after working 5 or 10 years in a certain part of the nursing profession, to perhaps enhance that professional training opportunity or to try something a little different like perhaps taking a year off to do some other kind of training. They wanted the opportunity to access EI, an insurance program that they have paid into year after year.
Did the government open up any of those opportunities? We need improved health care in this country. We need more trained people in this country. Did the government offer an opportunity for nurses throughout Canada to enhance their professional training, or to other workers for that matter? No, it stomped on them, saying, “We have a $42 billion surplus and we want to use it to give a tax cut to someone else over here, possibly, what the heck, Bombardier, Groupaction, whoever. We want to make sure all of them get a tax cut”.
However we do not want to open up any better benefits or opportunities for Canadian workers who have paid into these funds. It is not giving them something for nothing. They would access those funds because they paid that insurance. That would have been an enhanced EI program. That is what a good, considerate government with a conscience and caring for its people would have done. However not this government under this budget. It is extremely disappointing that the government had an opportunity to do that with a $42 billion surplus in EI but it never even bothered to think about it.
Another issue came up on EI in the last week or so. Flight attendants were always, in my view, considered part of the flight crew. They are our number one first responder if an airplane goes down. I always said how we expect them not to be injured any more than passengers was always beyond me. However they are considered the persons to respond to emergencies on the plane. Lo and behold flight attendants are not considered part of the flight crew. As a result of them not being considered part of that crew, it has changed the whole concept of how CCRA and human resources will make available to them the opportunity for EI payments.
Every contract with every airline has different kinds of agreements for the flight attendants. I hate to say this because it is disappointing to have to be reminding the government over and over again, but this has opened up a situation where once again mostly women will be challenged as to whether they can access EI payments, even for maternity leave, because of the way the government now sees their hours.
Without getting into how the hours for flight attendants work, we all know that we get on a flight and it leaves at a certain time. The flight attendant is there looking after us, helping out with a family member who might be a little tense or providing assistance if it is needed. If the plane is delayed and it is sitting on the ground waiting, for a lot of flight attendants that is not considered flying time. There are things built into the contract that mean it will be dealt with differently. However the government is not going to acknowledge that. It will only consider the flying time and it will finagle around other agreements flight attendants have as to whether they will be counted as hours worked. As a result, flight attendants will be denied EI benefits.
We are still working on this one and I hope the government will have the decency and conscience to recognize that if the flight attendant has to sit there and wait an hour and a half while the plane gets back on track that time will be considered as time worked and allow them to use that time to collect EI.
I know I only have a short period of time left but there were so many other things I wanted to mention. Let me just get on to a couple in that short two minutes.
I wanted to mention the situation with the seniors' access to pension. Once again, a government with any conscience would not put into place a rule that says if seniors did not let the government know they wanted this pension which was rightfully due, then they would not receive it because the time had expired.
These are our most vulnerable people in society as a result of cuts the government has made to health care, housing and numerous areas. They have paid their dues to Canadian society time and time again and have worked hard to get us good programs. Our seniors have supported health care over the years. With the Canada pension plan, seniors have been paying that for us. What is the government doing? It is telling them that if they did not apply on time they will not receive their pension which they were rightfully due. They might get $15,000 to $16,000 a year and the government expects them to live on that, and it will not give them any extra cash.
That is absolutely unacceptable from a caring, considerate country such as Canada, and obviously acceptable to the government, which is not okay for Canadians. I hope Canadians will recognize that next time around when they have seen the actions of this government in a number of areas.
Subtopic: Budget Implementation Act, 2003