May 6, 2004

LIB

Claude Duplain

Liberal

Mr. Claude Duplain

Mr. Speaker, I want to apologize once again for saying things that I should not have said. I apologize to the Bloc members. There is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, we lose control because things are construed in so many different ways.

Just a while ago, a member said that we do nothing for elderly people. As far as I know, we have launched a pilot program to find solutions in that area. We are taking different measures like that. This is the type of thing we are working on.

An interim report will shortly be delivered to the Prime Minister and the minister responsible for employment insurance. Certain things will be done as has been said. We must find real solutions to a very real problem, in accordance with a plan for standards and legislations.

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BQ

Benoît Sauvageau

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Benoît Sauvageau (Repentigny, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, all stakeholders say that only 4 out of 10 unemployed people will receive employment insurance benefits. The member for Portneuf quoted the figure of 88%. I would like him to explain how he arrived at such a percentage.

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LIB

Claude Duplain

Liberal

Mr. Claude Duplain

Mr. Speaker, those figures are verifiable, and I can provide them to the honourable member so he can check them. They were provided by the department and, according to them, 88% of all Canadians would be eligible to EI if they needed it. Those are the figures provided and we are not afraid to show them. We are not afraid to tell those things.

Earlier, a Bloc member mentioned the possibility of regionalizing EI and he gave some examples from his region. Do you know that, overall, Quebec has drawn $86 billion in EI benefits since 1980, while it collected $73 billion? It is hard to believe that there is a deficit and that Quebec does not draw its fair share.

That does not include the $600 million in benefits related to employment that Quebec gets every year. That is not included in those figures. Do you realize how much money Quebec gets? But that does not mean we condone what is going on now. We now have a specific problem on the Lower North Shore and elsewhere.

I went there, I met people and I wanted to explain to them what we were doing. Just to show you how discussions can sometimes be difficult, I recall very vividly that the Sans-Chemise came here recently. The Bloc proposed a motion which was rejected, because initiatives are being taken to resolve the problem.

I went to talk to the Sans-Chemise to inform them of what we were doing. It seems to me that when one wants to put in place new criteria, new standards or new measures, one is willing to discuss. As I was talking to these people, members from the Bloc arrived and accused us of being liars, stirring up people against me. They all left. It was sheer arrogance, when I wanted to sit down with them and discuss peacefully what we were doing. I was brought up to do that. It might not be the same thing for them, but that is what I was brought up to do.

I was happy to hear the previous speaker say a moment ago that she was ready to sit down and talk. It would be good if all Bloc members could do that so that we could find solutions.

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CA

Charlie Penson

Canadian Alliance

Mr. Charlie Penson (Peace River, CPC)

Mr. Speaker, I wonder if the member agrees that some people who have to pay employment insurance premiums, such as self-employed workers and farmers who work off farm, can never apply for employment insurance. It seems to me that something should be done about that.

We also have people who are self-employed and sometimes find themselves having to work off the farm in other areas. Would the member agree that something should be done to fix that? It seems unfair to me that people who have to pay premiums never have the opportunity to collect employment insurance.

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LIB

Claude Duplain

Liberal

Mr. Claude Duplain

Mr. Speaker, as far as the issue of the self-employed is concerned, I must point out that, at the request of the Prime Minister, I was part of the Task Force on Women Entrepreneurs, which went around the country in order to report on the situation of women entrepreneurs.

I know perfectly well what the self-employed are faced with. I am the first in this government to defend the idea that we must take a position to help them. Which one exactly? I would not be able to tell you tomorrow morning, because this is something the whole government must decide.

However, I am the first to promote the fact that for self-employed workers, we must absolutely find a solution, because more and more, they wield economic power in Canada, and it is really important. We have to look out for them, because they can often find themselves in very difficult situations.

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BQ

Benoît Sauvageau

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Benoît Sauvageau (Repentigny, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, for starters, please allow me to clarify something since the member for Portneuf has not had an easy time explaining to me how he found this 80%. My explanation is volunteered in an effort to please him as well as to broaden his knowledge

Those 88% he is referring to are people who qualify for EI benefits. Therefore, they have worked the required amount of hours or weeks and meet all requirements. Therefore, 88% of the people meeting 100% of the requirements obtain EI benefits.

Why 88% and not 100%? My colleague for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques has just explained this to me so that I could pass on the best information possible to the member for Portneuf. The fact is that some people do not have to go as far as receiving their first EI cheque, either because they have found a job, because they are ill, or because they have decided to no longer be unemployed, to no longer be part of this system.

However, for the benefit of my colleague from Portneuf who, I can see, is listening intently to what I am telling him about the 88%, only four persons out of ten who pay employment insurance premiums actually get employment insurance benefits when they need them. Consequently, that is how the difference between the 40% and the 88% can be explained.

So when he has to answer questions on this or when he makes more speeches in the House on this subject, he will know what to say.

I invite him, if he does not agree, to rise in his place and speak to this issue. Since he is not rising, I have to conclude that he agrees with me on what I just said.

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Some hon. members

Oh, oh.

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BQ

Benoît Sauvageau

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Benoît Sauvageau

Mr. Speaker, there is some bad-mouthing going on in the House about the hon. member for Portneuf. I will not tell you what I heard. All I will say is that after the next election, he will be on vacation for a long time. However, I will not say what he is doing today.

I will now remind the House of the motion before us today for this opposition day. It is important that we begin by setting out the main subject of our debate. It is as follows:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should propose, before the dissolution of the House, an employment insurance reform along the lines of the 17 recommendations contained in the unanimous report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities entitled “Beyond Bill C-2: A Review of Other Proposals to Reform Employment Insurance”.

What the Bloc Quebecois is recommending today is what we have recommended many times since May 2001, and what has been recommended outright when the report was tabled in May 2001, that is an in-depth reform of the Employment Insurance Act and particularly of those parts of the act that penalize contributors to the plan.

For the benefit of the hon. member for Portneuf in particular, and also for all the people who are listening at home, I will explain how we come up with a committee report that contains 17 unanimous recommendations. First of all, the chair of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities is usually a Liberal. That committee is chaired by somebody appointed by the Prime Minister.

The vice-chair is also a Liberal, and more often than not—and it is okay, I am not being critical here—it is the minister's parliamentary secretary. This person then gives his or her colleagues the information on what will be going on. The majority of the members of the committee represent the governing party, the Liberals.

Therefore, the chair is a Liberal, one of the two vice-chairs is a Liberal and more often than not the parliamentary secretary representing the minister at the committee, and most of the members are from the Liberal Party.

The Bloc Quebecois was there, the Conservative Party was there, and also the NDP. After two or three months of discussions, evidence, research and expertise, the committee submitted a unanimous report.

For the benefit of the hon. member for Portneuf, a unanimous report means that everyone agreed on it. I should add, again for the benefit of the hon. member for Portneuf, that when a report is unanimous and when everyone agrees on it, this means that the Liberals also agreed. They signed the report, along with the other members of the committee. As regards recommendation No. 1, for example, which seeks to end discrimination toward young unemployed individuals, women and new entrants in the employment insurance program, I should point out, for the benefit of the hon. member for Portneuf, that the Liberals agreed with this recommendation. They signed the report after two or three months of work.

The minister was aware of this, because his or her parliamentary secretary was present. Therefore, cabinet was aware. Indeed, and I say this for the benefit of the hon. member for Portneuf, committees do not meet in secret. They send notices. Their meetings are even open to the public. There are committee proceedings and minutes. After hearing witnesses and after examining the issue, the committee produced a unanimous report which says in recommendation No. 1, for example, that we should end discrimination toward young people, women and new entrants in the employment insurance program.

Now, we are asking the members who signed this report if they want to vote accordingly. They are telling us no. They do not agree. They want to review the issue because it is important. They promised to do so in 2000, during the election campaign. They made recommendations in 2001 after reviewing the issue, but now they are not prepared to vote to support these recommendations.

This is what we object to. The Prime Minister talks about democratic deficit. The same Prime Minister told Canadians, in a news release dated March 18, 2004, and I quote:

This government places great importance on hearing from those lives that are directly impacted by our policies, including our seasonal workers. Our Caucus has been extremely active in making the sector's opinions known, and will continue to play an important role in further examining those views.

This was a news release signed by the Prime Minister on March 18.

Thirteen days later, this same Prime Minister voted against a motion and with him an overwhelming majority of Liberal members from Quebec, including the member for Portneuf. This motion asked that a specific status be established for seasonal workers, regardless of the EI economic area in which they live.

So we were saying that the Prime Minister had made a promise. The Liberals signed a report. Can they now officialize it? When you promise something, when you sign a report to confirm a promise or a commitment, when you go back to the people to say that you applaud such a measure but ask for a little bit more, we say you should make good on your word and put the issue to a vote in the House. Now, they tell us they are not ready to do that.

This is what we object to. Therefore I wish to tell the member for Portneuf about the existence of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development, about the existence of a unanimous report and about the fact that this report got the unanimous support of Liberal members. I believe it is important that the member for Portneuf be made aware of those facts before making any more speeches and answering our questions.

Another recommendation of this unanimous report—therefore a report which got the support of the Liberals—was to extend benefit periods in order to avoid the spring gap. This was recommendation No. 3. Since 2001, nothing has been done about the spring gap. The report also talked about implementing specific measures for older workers. Those measures were obviously less generous than the POWA program, but they were still better than the present situation. This was recommendation No. 4.

Recommendations Nos. 8 and 9 talked about the possibility of extending the program to self-employed workers. I am happy to hear that the member for Portneuf agreed with that earlier. I am also convinced that if the motion were introduced today and put to a vote, the hon. member might vote against it, even though he said he was in favour.

Recommendation 16 talks about increasing the amount of benefits by changing the calculation formula.

That is how we, including the Liberals, unanimously agreed to improve the EI benefits scheme.

Why should it be improved? That has been explained very well by my colleagues who spoke today, especially my colleagues from Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques and Rimouski--Neigette-et-la-Mitis, who is our critic on this file.

Everybody recognizes that the situation is desperate, especially for seasonal workers and people living in the regions. Everybody recognizes that. However, it is not true only of people living in the regions.

We looked at the results of a study conducted by the CLC, the Canadian Labour Congress. For the benefit of my colleague for Portneuf, the first C stands for Canadian. This study was not done by the Parti Quebecois, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste or sovereignists. The first C stands for Canadian, I want to stress that point.

According to the CLC study, between 1993 and 2001, losses linked to the tightening up of EI eligibility standards were in the order of $3 billion a year in Quebec. If you divide that number by the 75 ridings in Quebec, the shortfall is around $40 million a year per riding.

This shortfall calculated by the CLC—and I repeat for my colleague from Portneuf that the first C stands for Canadian—represents a shortfall not only for the unemployed, but also for the regions. The unemployed do not invest their benefits in Barbados, they put that money directly back into the local economy. Surpluses generated by the EI plan on the back of the regions are put into the consolidated revenue fund, not into the regions.

My riding, Repentigny, is not in a remote area; it is in the suburbs of Montreal. People in Repentigny are not faced with the serious problem caused by the spring gap or the serious problem in the seasonal sectors, as a whole. Some of them, yes, but not across the board.

In spite of that, according to the CLC, since 1993, since the tightening up of the employment insurance scheme, the shortfall in the riding of Repentigny has been $47 million a year for eight years, or $376 million. In the riding of Repentigny, the unemployed, who unfortunately are in a special situation, have been deprived of that money over the past eight years. That has had an impact on the local economy. I remind my colleague the member for Portneuf that that is according to a study conducted by the Canadian Labour Congress.

I think I have been pretty clear about the importance of implementing decisions that have been accepted unanimously, including by the Liberals. Once again, with an election campaign looming, the Liberals are promising to look into it, to think about it, and to eventually move forward and create a committee.

I made a joking comment a while ago to my colleague from Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques. It is just a joke, I have no wish to offend any religious groups. What I said was that God created the world in six days. Before the seventh day, He created a committee, and it took another three billion years before Man and Woman appeared. When the Liberals promise us a committee, I really wonder when we will see a response to this question, particularly since that committee will be made up of nothing but Liberals. I hope they will be signing a unanimous report.

For the benefit of my colleague for Portneuf, if the committee is comprised solely of Liberals, and if they all sign the report, then it will be really unanimous. If that report is then voted on here in the House, and they vote against it, then there will really be some problems. I just wanted to point out to him that there will be no separatists on such a committee.

Today, with an election looming, why the concern about these promises?

There is concern because during the last election campaign, two minor players, among others, formally promised workers they would reform the Employment Insurance Act. I will name only two members, former minister Alfonso Gagliano, who was more concerned about the sponsorships and all that, but who nonetheless could occasionally talk about other things, and our colleague from Bourassa. Again, if my colleague from Bourassa says he did not say that then he needs to inform the House.

This promise had been made on the North Shore and in the Gaspé in the weeks leading up to the election. Now that we think the election might be called tomorrow, there is no talk of the promises that were made this week. Talk is about the promises made before the last election, in 2000, that still have not been kept.

The federal government has never come through on this promise except to pass a bill that was tabled before the dissolution of the House. In fact, it was this bill that made construction workers so angry in that it did not address the main flaws in the program.

Consequently, this is the aspect on which the Bloc Quebecois humbly proposes that the Liberals honour their signatures on a report in which there were 17 recommendations aimed at correcting a distressing situation for workers, for women and youth, and for older workers who lose their jobs.

Thus, we ask the Liberals who made a commitment to the POWA program, who made a commitment to independent workers, who signed, who promised and who said that they were going to reform employment insurance, to keep their word, quite simply. We offer them an opportunity to honour their signatures and, in turn, we will accept only the recommendations they made.

In conclusion, I have a little anecdote about the people who, at the time, were called Alliancers or Reformists, or something like that. Nevertheless, the former Alliance members, the new Conservatives, quoted verbatim the Liberal's 1993 red book about the ethics counsellor. They copied from the Liberal Party's 1993 red book, in quotation marks, a text that went something like this, “We promise to appoint an independent ethics counsellor in the House of Commons,” or something like that. I do not know the 1993 red book by heart—it was not my bedtime reading—but I remember that this promise was in the red book. Consequently, the people who are now the Conservatives took verbatim what was in the red book and submitted it to the House.

For the benefit of the hon. member for Portneuf, the red book was written by Liberals, nothing but Liberals. It was not even a unanimous committee that wrote it; it was only Liberals. Are you surprised, Mr. Speaker, to learn that the Liberals voted it down?

In terms of democratic deficit and lack of respect of the public for politicians, the very best example is to take a promise out of the red book, put it forward to Liberal members and watch them vote against their own commitments.

Today, however, after listening to my colleagues from the Bloc Quebecois, I can say that this is the same kind of situation where we tell the Liberals, “You made commitments. You took some concrete action. What we are asking now is that you deliver on your promises. Vote on this motion. Let us make it votable”.

That having been said, I seek the unanimous consent of the House to make this motion put forward by the Bloc Quebecois today votable.

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The Deputy Speaker

Does the hon. member for Repentigny have the consent of the House to move this motion?

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Some hon. members

Agreed.

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Some hon. members

No.

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BQ

Benoît Sauvageau

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Benoît Sauvageau

Mr. Speaker, you cannot imagine how surprised I am to hear that no. I was so convinced that, at the end of this whole day of debate, they would say: “We have heard you and you are right: we should keep our promise and meet our commitments”.

To my great surprise, they listened to us, but did not hear us. Or, if they heard and listened, they did not understand. It is a total surprise to discover that Liberals will not make the recommendations they signed and the commitments they made official.

For that reason, people will know; in the Portneuf riding and in all the ridings in more remote areas. On the Lower North Shore and in the Gaspé Peninsula, people will no longer be naive and will no longer believe promises like those that were made the week before the election in 2000, when they said: “Vote for us and do not worry, we will change the Employment Insurance Act”.

Why will people no longer believe the Liberals? Because the Liberals vote against their own red book promises and are now voting against commitments they made themselves in a unanimous report.

That is why I am sure, as my colleague the member for Portneuf said earlier, that several Liberals will be going on vacation after the next election.

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LIB

Claude Duplain

Liberal

Mr. Claude Duplain (Portneuf, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I am rising to speak, but not in answer to the member for Repentigny. It is not even worth my while. When I spoke earlier, I said clearly that I was doing so to explain exactly what we had done and not to defend the present state of things and say that all is well in the best of worlds. Rather, I will speak in answer to an earlier question of his and let him take it from there.

As you see, it takes but an utterance and you see how our words can be misconstrued...

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The Deputy Speaker

The member for Repentigny has the floor on a point of order.

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BQ

Benoît Sauvageau

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Benoît Sauvageau

Mr. Speaker, earlier the member for Portneuf was not aware of the fact that he may not refer to the presence or the absence of any member. Now I would want to tell him that after a speech, when we are into questions or comments, he should not be giving answers to questions but rather asking questions.

He just told the House that he wants to answer the questions. Could he give me--

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The Deputy Speaker

Order please. I think it is not at all unusual that a member wishes to begin his speech by answering a question asked earlier and finally asking himself a question. Let us wait. Let us be patient. We have 25 minutes left to let off steam and discuss the issue.

The hon. member for Portneuf.

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LIB

Claude Duplain

Liberal

Mr. Claude Duplain (Portneuf, Lib.)

Actually, Mr. Speaker, I will neither debate nor let off steam. I have better to do than to accuse the hon. member or target him as he just did me.

During his speech, he must have said at least 10 to 15 times “to inform the member for Portneuf”, as if we were morons, know nothing and they know everything. That's what makes their strength. This is what the member did all along his speech. I will let him go that way. If he wants to add to what he already said and go on, so be it but I have better things to do. As a matter of fact, instead of complaining, we are working on concrete things.

I will ask a question because he asked me a question earlier about the 88 per cent. I already had the information he previously gave me. However, did he know that the 88 per cent figure is part of a report which was tabled in the House in 1997 and which is about the control and evaluation of employment insurance? That is where the figure of 88 per cent comes from. Was he aware of the existence of that report?

This is the only question I have for him. If he wishes to go on ranting and raving, I will let him do so.

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BQ

Benoît Sauvageau

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Benoît Sauvageau (Repentigny, BQ)

Yes, Mr. Speaker.

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LIB

Eleni Bakopanos

Liberal

Hon. Eleni Bakopanos (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development (Social Economy), Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, on this side of the House, our approach to the EI issue is certainly different from that of our friends of the Bloc Quebecois.

There is no denying there was a decrease in EI benefits. That was directly attributable to the strong labour market in Quebec. We know that. The more people work, the less they need to resort to EI.

We also know that the national unemployment rate fell from 4.1% to 3.5%. In Quebec, it decreased from 11.3% in 1996 to 8.5% in 2002-03. At the national level, it now stands at 7.6%

When the unemployment rate falls, we know that the number of hours of insurable employment required goes down at the same time, as more people work. On this side of the House, we want to encourage job creation. We do not want workers to need to resort to employment insurance. We want them to work. The credibility of this government on this issue is quite obvious, it seems to me. That's where we really try to help all workers.

I would like to go back to the figures that have been mentioned. The hon. member for Rimouski--Neigette-et-la Mitis talked about 40% and another member about 39%. The Canadian Labour Congress and other unions that appeared before the standing committee on human resources development mentioned other figures somewhere around 38%.

It has been said, and I repeat, that this includes all workers. It includes people who never worked or never contributed, former self-employed workers who did not contribute, and students. When we look at this in the broader picture, the figures of around 38%, 39% or 40% can be played with.

Many things have been said about young people and older workers. As far as I know, young people work during the summer and work a few hours during the school year. Of course, they contribute. That is the law. But they do not get benefits, because they are students for the rest of the year.

The statistics are the same. Some 30% of young workers are eligible. They are eligible, but they do not get benefits because they do not have the required number of hours.

As regards older workers, since this will be the last opportunity I have to talk about this issue, I must say that we launched pilot projects and have found that more and more older people are returning to the labour market. We are analyzing the data from those pilot projects and we will react to them.

As my colleague mentioned, the Prime Minister and the minister have said they are ready to react, following the recommendations of the Liberal task force, which conducted a quick study that nevertheless included the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities—not because of the election campaign. We do not even know when the election will be called. They said they would react.

Each time a problem has come up, we have tried to amend the Employment Insurance Act and we will continue to do so.

I would like to look at the figures proposed by the Bloc member. Does he agree that figures can tell different stories and it all depends on the way we look at them?

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BQ

Benoît Sauvageau

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Benoît Sauvageau

Mr. Speaker, the parliamentary secretary is partly right. When we are debating figures, we can indeed make them say many things. The Canadian Labour Congress has certain figures. The Liberals have their own. We like to use figures coming from the most independent sources. If we took a Bloc Quebecois report and compared it with our own, and if the result was 3% against 48%, I would probably suggest, in order to achieve some consensus on the issue, to scrap both studies, and to rely on an independent one. Such a study would probably more closely reflect the reality.

That is why the studies referred to by the Bloc today are not internal studies made by our party, as are those of HRC that talk about an 88% rate. I believe there is a gap between the two, which must be explained and debated.

However, we do not need many figures when we travel to the Lower North Shore or the Gaspé. This is also true for other provinces. Unemployment does not exist only in Quebec, as if there were a wall and that reality did not exist on the other side. When we travel to the Maritimes, the Prairies and just about everywhere, there exists a reality that need not be expressed with figures. We visit people, we talk to them and we can see their distress. The situation is very obvious.

I will again engage into partisanship. It is so obvious that the member for Bourassa, former minister Gagliano, the Prime Minister, the member for LaSalle—Émard, and former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made solemn commitments. They did not do this by mentioning figures and by saying that it was 38%, 39%, 52% or 56%. They said that there was a situation that had to be dealt with.

Immediately after the election, they decided, in order to fulfill their commitment and their promise, to set up an all-party committee, as is the custom in this House. That committee proposed 17 unanimous recommendations. Now, three years later, we are saying that the time has come to sound the alarm, and we are asking them to make good on their commitments and promises. The Liberals must respect their signatures on the unanimous report. Accept it and let us implement these 17 recommendations. That is all.

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May 6, 2004