May 6, 2004

LIB

Brent St. Denis

Liberal

Mr. Brent St. Denis (Algoma—Manitoulin, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, let me say to my colleague whose motion we are debating today that we appreciate the opportunity to participate in the debate on the entire system of supporting workers, those who become unemployed from time to time or those who, because of their participation in seasonal work, become unemployed on a cyclical basis. They are all of importance to Canada and of concern to us.

I have the opportunity to be the chairman of the Prime Minister's task force on seasonal work, so I have a special interest in this matter, particularly in regard to the weeks and months ahead.

I would like to ask a question of my good friend across the way, because he has seasonal workers in his riding and I have them in my riding in northern Ontario. One of the things we hear consistently from our communities is that the current employment insurance system has built within it certain disincentives. We have heard from laid-off workers themselves that the system does not encourage them to take work, because if they do sometimes their benefits will go down for the next year. I know that my friend has heard that from his own constituents as I have heard it in my travels across the country. As well, there are certain provisions in the current system, which we will acknowledge is not a perfect system, that encourage the underground economy.

Does my colleague have some ideas that are not included in the list of recommendations we are debating today, ideas that will decrease disincentives and reduce the temptation of the underground economy?

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Supply
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BQ

Paul Crête

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Paul Crête

Mr. Speaker, the first thing that comes to my mind is that the hon. member should have given consent for making this motion votable today. That would have been a first step, a concrete contribution toward making some progress on this file, which has been dragging for some years now because the current government refused to assume its responsibilities. This is the case for the seasonal workers, and for other workers as well.

When he says that the system is a disincentive to work, my answer is that we must dispel the myth that most people do not want to work. Seasonal workers want to have more weeks of work, because they will then be able to draw benefits for more weeks. The problem is that, as a result of the restrictions brought in between 1994 and 1996, which are still in effect today, the people in my region would, if it were not for transitional measures, be left facing a 20 to 25 week gap next winter. Imagine what would happen if we had no earnings for 15 to 20 weeks. How would we react?

In this case, it is not a matter of 15 to 20 weeks without earnings, but 15 to 20 weeks without EI benefits. The decision was made to tighten things up. When the economy in a region picks up, this penalizes seasonal workers because they are required to have more hours in order to qualify. So, in the end, there are fewer weeks of benefits.

Although we rejoice that there are more jobs, the end result for people working in the peat bogs, in agriculture, in forestry, picking berries or fruit, and many others doing similar work, is that there will not be any more weeks work from one year to the next just because the economy has picked up. That does not affect the size of the blueberry crop.

So a way must be found to acknowledge the existence of these seasonal industries. We must replace Mr. Chrétien's phrase about the jobless being beer-drinkers, which dates from 1993, with another phrase: “Seasonal industries are real industries, ones that contribute to the development of our regional economies”.

The way to do that is to implement a good employment insurance plan that will allow people to get through the year, work 15 weeks and then be eligible for 37 weeks of benefits, so that they can continue to work in our regions and not find themselves forced to leave. The young person who starts working in the tourism industry in a region, works for 800 hours and finds that his or her services are no longer required when he or she is missing 110 hours more will just move to the big city and never come back to the region. We trained that young person for nothing. That is the kind of situation we see.

The first thing the member should do, since he is the one who refused to make this motion votable, is to say that the motion should be votable so that we can exert some pressure on the government to force it to propose a thorough reform of the employment insurance plan to the House so it can be approved before the next election.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Supply
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?

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Order please. Before we hear the next speaker, I have the honour to inform the House that a communication has been received as follows:

Rideau Hall

Ottawa

May 6, 2004

Mr. Speaker,

I have the honour to inform you that the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada, signified royal assent by written declaration to the bills listed in the Schedule to this letter on the 6th day of May, 2004, at 10:00 a.m.

Yours sincerely,

Barbara Uteck

Secretary to the Governor General

The Schedule indicates the bills assented to were Bill C-7, An Act to amend certain Acts of Canada, and to enact measures for implementing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, in order to enhance public safety, Chapter 15; Bill C-17, An Act to amend certain Acts, Chapter 16; and Bill C-11, An Act to give effect to the Westbank First Nation Self-Government Agreement, Chapter 17.

Topic:   The Royal Assent
Subtopic:   Supply
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The House resumed consideration of the motion.


LIB

Brent St. Denis

Liberal

Mr. Brent St. Denis (Algoma—Manitoulin, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to participate in this opposition day debate.

It is very important that issues surrounding employment insurance, issues surrounding workers, their needs, the needs of their communities and the industries be given the highest priority by this government, or any government for that matter, in order that our economy remains strong. We want to ensure that those are able to work can find the work for which they are suited. We also want to ensure that those who are unable to work, whether they are disabled or whether they are laid off for whatever reason, are provided with the supports required to make them feel that they are a part of this great country of ours.

The motion calls on the government to implement all of the “Beyond Bill C-2” report recommendations, including those that would ease employment insurance eligibility requirements and improve benefits. The motion provides us with a great opportunity to debate some of the important points relating to employment insurance.

Many of those recommendations would significantly impact seasonal workers. Therefore we need to provide some context for this issue by taking a closer look at the characteristics of workers in seasonal industries, how their work differs from that of other workers and the unique contribution they make to our economy.

As I mentioned a few moments ago, I have the honour to chair the Prime Minister's task force on seasonal work. In the visits to communities we have made thus far, and from my own experience as the member of Parliament for Algoma—Manitoulin and soon to be Algoma--Manitoulin--Kapuskasing, I want to underline that the government recognizes and values the importance of seasonal industries, of seasonal work.

A great number of our citizens depend on the fishery and fish processing, on forestry, on agriculture and horticulture. Trappers are seasonal workers, as are construction workers. There are many more whose livelihoods depend on the seasonal, cyclical nature of their work. These are important industries and these workers are important to our economy. We must value them. Their communities depend on them. The fact that their work is seasonal does not in any measure take away from their importance. Without these seasonal industries, the country would suffer greatly.

Because the government takes all work and the employment insurance system seriously, there is a system in place for monitoring the impact of changes on the system. It is through monitoring, consultation, and talking to citizens that we find better ways to ensure that the EI system responds to worker needs, industry needs and Canada's needs.

I will be one of the first ones to admit that the changes that were made a few years ago in some respects may have gone a bit too far. That is why the government in the meantime has made a number of ameliorating measures. A number of steps have been taken to reverse some of the measures that turned out not to achieve the purposes for which they were put in place. That does not mean they were put in place because anybody was meanspirited. They were put in place to try to make the system better for everyone, but things do not always work the way we plan.

It is quite surprising when we look at the list of measures the government has put in place since the adoption of the 1996 reform package, which has done a lot to improve or to bring the pendulum partway back to a point of balance. That is not to suggest that we do not have some way to go. I propose strongly that we do have some way to go.

Let me outline some of the changes that have been made since 1996 to bring the pendulum back. There was the introduction of the small weeks adjustment pilot project in 1997. There has been the enhancement of maternity and parental benefits. These benefits have been extended from six months to a full year for parents of children born or placed for adoption on or after December 31, 2000.

The passage of Bill C-2 occurred in May 2001. Its highlights include: the elimination of the intensity rule; better targeting of the benefit repayment provision, known as the clawback; adjustment of the re-entrant rule for re-entrant parents; and extension of the monitoring and assessment process until 2006. Further, there is the creation of the new compassionate care benefit introduced in January of this year. This allows workers and their families to share six weeks of leave when a spouse, child or parent is dying or seriously ill.

These measures underline the fact that the government believes that the EI system is not simply an economic system. Rather, it is a system which includes social and economic development, and local regional development. We must keep this in mind. Finding a balance between the needs of the broader society and the needs of workers is very important. After all, it is about people and their families, and their communities at the end of the day.

In March the Prime Minister appointed the task force which I chair. A number of excellent colleagues from the House of Commons and from the other place have undertaken, with me, the serious task of pursuing a very strong and purposeful mandate given to us by the Prime Minister.

I will outline the mandate. The mandate will prove to all members that the government is very serious when it comes to the needs of seasonal workers. When we look at the whole picture, it is not just about EI, as important as that is, but it is about a broad variety of measures that we need to undertake to make sure that seasonal workers are well served as full citizens of our country.

That mandate, given to us by the Prime Minister in March, includes the following points. These are in no particular order of precedence. They are all important.

First, what are the specific needs of seasonal industries and their workers in the area of skills development, lifelong learning and literacy?

Second, what are the ways to promote greater economic diversity and stronger local economies, particularly in rural and remote communities across Canada? These communities are typically those most dependent on seasonal industries.

Third, what is the support required to help seasonal work dependent communities to adapt to seize opportunities provided by the new knowledge based global economy?

Fourth, what are the ways of lowering barriers to regional and interprovincial labour mobility?

Fifth is how to align income support programs, such as employment insurance and provincial social assistance programs, to improve income support while promoting full year-round participation in the labour force.

Sixth is how to address the challenges and opportunities offered by temporary foreign workers. Typically, we see the agricultural sector in most need of temporary foreign workers.

Seventh is the potential role for government in encouraging new approaches to community development, i.e., the social economy.

Eighth is an assessment of the opportunities and challenges specific to seasonal economies in promoting the safeguard of our natural environment.

It is clear that the government recognizes that the ledger has a very important social side. It is not all about dollars and cents. As important as we have made balancing the budgets of this country, we also recognize that people, their families and our communities are an essential and fundamental part of society. We must not get lost simply in balancing the books. The government recognizes that.

I would like to outline some of the messages we heard in our recent travels as a group through eastern Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

A few weeks ago our task force had a chance to visit about 10 communities in the five provinces of the eastern half of this country. The messages we heard from citizens, from union leaders, businesses, big and small, mayors and reeves are messages I am sure colleagues in the House have heard from their own constituents. These messages remind us that we need, at all times, to examine and re-examine government policy to ensure that we are doing the best with the tools that governments have.

Again, in no particular order of precedence, this is a sampling of some of the things we heard, which I mentioned in my question earlier to the proponent of the motion today.

The current EI system fosters the underground economy. We know that workers, laid off and otherwise, want to work. They do not want to go around the system to avoid taxes, to report income, to bank hours or to the take steps they feel are needed simply to feed their families, because the rules in many cases create disincentives to honest behaviour. This is not their fault. This is a situation where some of the rules, with no intent to harm when they were originally put in place, have inadvertently created disincentives and provided pressure to drive some funds underground. We need to address those measures so workers can behave the way they want to, which is honestly, and take the work that is available to them.

We also heard from many people that the work is seasonal, not the workers. Workers who live in areas where seasonal work is predominant are not to blame for the seasons. They are not to blame for the fact that ice is over the water and they cannot fish. I know in my own riding there is an inland fishery in Lake Huron and Lake Superior. We know that right off our shores in my home town of Spanish they cannot get out to fish much of the year. The same applies to our coastal fishing areas. These are factors out of their control and we have to recognize that.

We also heard that the EI system was too complicated for the average citizen. Being a parliamentarian, I found it complicated enough to understand the system. Imagine the average citizen on the street, whether they need EI or not, trying to understand the complexity. We need to find a way to make it simpler and more user friendly. The government is committed to doing just that. That is part of dealing with the democratic deficit. The democratic deficit is not just about how we run our affairs around here. It is about engaging all citizens in a government that is more accessible, more open and more reachable.

We have discovered that EI benefits paid to seasonal workers, especially those in the east, have fallen drastically over the last number of years. There are many factors for this, but we have to examine carefully if there are things in the system which have caused this to the detriment of workers.

The changing demographics of seasonal industries are a primary concern for employers and communities in general. The seasonal workforce is aging, while the younger population is leaving. Part of this are the barriers to the EI system caused by the higher bar for the entry of new workers. We have to recognize, because seasonal industries are important, that we have to ensure that workers are there to support those industries. We cannot afford to lose forestry, fishers or agricultural workers. Farmers, fishers and forest companies need these workers.

Seasonal employers spend a lot of money retraining staff at the beginning of every season, partly because of the disincentives they cannot always get the people they need to work. Those who go to work and take limited numbers of weeks will pay in reduced benefits the following year.

We also heard from many that the skills of seasonal workers need to be enhanced in part to increase their productivity in season and also to provide more ability to move between and among different types of seasonal work, if and when that is available. We also heard that the economic EI boundaries do not reflect labour markets in a number of given localities. We feel we need to look at this very seriously.

In many communities we heard that employers were finding it more and more difficult year in and year out to find workers, especially when processing fish. Unlike a log that can lay in the yard for a period of time and not rot, when fish arrive, they need to be processed right away. It is important to have workers available at all times. Unlike other areas of work, seasonal work is on-demand work. There needs to be workers available when the work comes up.

I also want to give credit to a number of communities, including Woodstock, New Brunswick. Because of the nature of the local economy, they have dealt with the shortage of workers in a rather unique way. They have a pilot project to create an information bank of employers and employees. Combined with some good changes to the employment insurance system, they feel that over the long run they can grow their local seasonal economy by providing greater opportunities for diverse application of seasonal workers. In so doing, they can provide opportunities for employers to grow their businesses, which could otherwise not grow for lack of seasonal workers. Therefore, I give credit to folks in the Carleton country and Woodstock area for their efforts to deal with this creatively, as we have seen in other parts of the country.

It is important to note that the characteristics of seasonal workers vary considerably as to the jobs they hold and the challenges they face. For example, the recent Statistics Canada study on seasonal work and employment insurance use found that many seasonal workers did not fit the stereotypical image: that is, people with limited education who live in have not regions and rely heavily on seasonal industries and government assistance. This is not the real picture. In fact the real picture is that seasonal employment is found across Canada in virtually every industry and occupation, with the largest number of workers being found in Ontario, Quebec and then the Atlantic region.

Seasonal work is characterized by individuals with a variety of educational backgrounds. While some workers have limited skills, others are highly educated. Some depend on seasonal work. Others choose to work in a seasonal industry or in non-standard employment because of the flexibility it offers.

All of this suggests that government initiatives need to be flexible so they can allow for these differences. I fear, even with the changes we made in 1996, some of which have been modified in response to real reaction, that the system is still a little too inflexible and that measures need to be taken to reduce that.

The prevalence of seasonal work is even greater in some regions and industries where it can represent the main source of employment.

It is clear that seasonal work will continue to be an important feature of our economy in the future, given its role in such key industries as forestry, agriculture, particularly horticulture, some mining, the fishery, whether it is inland or coastal, tourism, construction, trapping and others. I am sure I have missed some. This is with no disrespect for those industries that I may have missed in my short speech today. They are all important.

Companies will continue a sometimes frantic search for enough workers during busy periods, and layoffs will continue to be a defining feature of slow seasons. All this makes it imperative that we have programs in place that are capable of helping workers acquire the skills needed for good, stable jobs, whether they are permanent jobs or whether they are jobs in other seasonal industries. It is imperative that programs ensure the industries in need of seasonal workers have those workers. It is imperative that programs encourage community and economic development, so regions dependent on seasonal work can diversify their economies to create jobs to employ these up-skilled workforces. Providing seasonal workers with temporary income is also an imperative when other employment opportunities are not available.

I want to compliment my colleague for bringing this motion forward, but it oversimplifies the situation. I personally would support a major review of the EI system, not only to eliminate or reduce disincentives, but also to find ways to better allocate those dollars so the social and human side and community development side of the equation is properly covered.

There are good examples of some pilot projects in Lac-Saint-Jean--Saguenay and the Bas-Saint-Laurent regions where workers and communities have tried some new ideas to ensure that we get some good advice from our local communities.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Supply
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BQ

Marcel Gagnon

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Marcel Gagnon (Champlain, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, I have listened carefully to the speakers since the beginning. This is the second member to speak on behalf of the government on this extremely important motion.

There is one thing that saddens me in the speech we have just heard. The hon. member has explained what a seasonal worker is. He has explained various things about what kinds of seasonal workers there are in Canada. I think we know this.

The motion asks the government to make an effort to solve the problem of those who are eligible for benefits but who do not receive them. These people know very well who they are.

I heard the government representative say that employment insurance is a tool for economic and social development. He also said it was a tool available to the government. The government wields this tool so well that it makes the workers pay $45 billion, and, instead of giving benefits to those who are and should be entitled to them, the government takes the money to pay off the national debt.

I do not understand my colleague's speech and I would like him to tell me whether it is normal that workers who contribute to the employment insurance fund are penalized. This insurance fund belongs to those who contribute, not to those who do not contribute, and not to the government.

Let us take the example of the POWA. More than 15,000 workers were covered by this program and needed it. It was abolished. These people had paid into employment insurance all their working lives. At the age of 55, if they lost their jobs, the POWA helped them get through this difficult period, but the program has been abolished.

Does the member think it normal that the government banks this money rather than using it for the benefit of the workers who contributed it?

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Supply
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LIB

Brent St. Denis

Liberal

Mr. Brent St. Denis

Mr. Speaker, this government has only been in office since the swearing in of our new Prime Minister last December. We have to look at what the government has already done. In being asked to chair the task force, I submit that demonstrates how serious the government is in finding some solutions that respond to the needs of all workers, particularly seasonal workers.

With regard to the EI fund, it is included in the general revenue of the government because the auditor general recommended that some years ago. There were years when the fund was in a deficit and had to be covered by the general revenues of the government. The auditor general simply recommended that we accept reality for what it was. In bad times the government would cover the deficit and in good times there would be a surplus in the fund. Hopefully, there will never be bad times again. If we have a good election result, we will not have bad times for a while.

With regard to older workers, those my colleague claims were hurt by the changes made some years ago, I mentioned in my remarks that no system is perfect. I listed a number of measures that have already been taken to ameliorate some of the unexpected consequences of the policy changes of the mid-nineties. I am convinced that more will come to respond to the needs of our workers.

The new cabinet and Prime Minister need to be given some time to build upon the knowledge base that we already have. The task force needs to be given some time to allow it to continue its consultations. I know the minister is serious about this process as well.

I would ask the member to be patient. No system can be perfect. If we work together in this place, we can always make it better. I am very confident that in the weeks and months ahead we will see improvements to the system of which we can all be proud.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Supply
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BQ

Pierre Paquette

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Pierre Paquette (Joliette, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, we really have in front of us a member and a government struck by amnesia. We are told that this government has been in place for five months, but actually it has been there for ten years. Amnesia seems to be the rule because in the ad scam some ministers and the Prime Minister himself have also been struck by amnesia. They are also suffering from amnesia when it comes to their promises.

We must remember that during the last election the president of the Privy Council travelled to Chicoutimi where he promised construction workers that changes would be made to employment insurance. They never were. Workers confirmed this last week; they remember and they will keep an eye on the Liberals during the election campaign.

The Prime Minister himself travelled to Charlevoix a few months ago and promised changes to employment insurance, especially about the gap. Nothing happened.

I will ask a simple question of the hon. member. Why did he oppose unanimous consent in the House to have this motion made votable tonight?

In conclusion, I will read the opposition motion:

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”.

Why did the member oppose the motion's being made votable?

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Supply
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LIB

Brent St. Denis

Liberal

Mr. Brent St. Denis

Mr. Speaker, the government is not paralyzed. I totally and categorically reject that notion. We have had an excellent throne speech and an excellent budget. The country is now going into, I believe, its seventh straight surplus year. The management of our country, by the past administration which was an excellent administration, but particularly by the new administration, is excellent.

I am not quite familiar with the Treasury Board commitments with respect to his own riding but, as far as I am concerned, in a new mandate, which hopefully we will see fairly soon, there will be measures taken to deal with the concerns that he has raised.

As far as not supporting the motion, I am not sure I can even address that. I am entitled to vote the way I feel is appropriate in the House so I am not sure it is appropriate for the member to ask me to explain why I would object to unanimous consent to a motion. However, if I were allowed to explain I would say to him that, as chair of the task force, our work is not done.

I do not feel the government needs to be held to account on a motion presented by Bloc members in this fashion. They have the opportunity to spend the day debating their point of view. I do not think it is necessary for the government to vote on their motion of the day.

The government's actions in the past and the ameliorating measures I have mentioned are clear. I think, in the weeks and months ahead, the government will continue acting on the urgent needs of workers as they are supported through the employment insurance system and other measures that support our communities.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Supply
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PC

Greg Thompson

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Greg Thompson (New Brunswick Southwest, CPC)

Mr. Speaker, I would like to put a few comments on the record. I most likely will not take up the full 20 minute allotment.

I will begin by talking about the Conservative Party position on the employment insurance program. Obviously, we support it. We want to make sure, as I think most of us in the House do, that the program provides adequate income protection for Canadians in the event they lose their jobs. Simply put, the program is supposed to be about protection for Canadians when they lose their jobs.

It often is unfairly identified as a social program. It is not a social program. We pay premiums. It is an insurance program, which is what it is supposed to be.

The old expression that has been heard around this place for many years is that the best social program is a job. I guess most of us hope that we never have to use the protection provided under the EI system. We all want to be productive and working but, unfortunately, sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men go astray and we find ourselves unemployed. In fact, after the election probably a few of us will find ourselves unemployed. Hopefully, Mr. Speaker, it is not me or you or any of our colleagues but I guess that is the reality of this job of politics. We take our chances in the marketplace every three or four years or so.

I want to make a few points on this issue and on just how disingenuous the Prime Minister has been in terms of reforming the EI system. The track record of the government is not very good on this. In fact, as we stand here today the surplus that has been built up in the fund is in excess of $48 billion. I will to explain the term “fund” more clearly later on.

What that money means is that the Government of Canada has paid out less than what it has taken in to the fund. That is the simple arithmetic. In other words, the government has paid out benefits but the income that it has received from that fund, the premiums, have exceeded those benefits by $48 billion. In other words, there is a $48 billion surplus generated by the EI account, those premiums that you, Mr. Speaker, and I and every other working Canadian are paying, as well as employers.

What we have suggested, and I think most Canadians agree with us, is that we are paying too much in premiums. The numbers speak for themselves. That is how the $48 billion surplus was generated. The Auditor General has reported on this as well.

Where the Prime Minister is disingenuous is in the fact that he is using the EI surplus, because there is no such thing as a fund. I wanted to explain that for the listening public. There is no such thing as a fund. Basically those surpluses go into general revenues.

What did the Government of Canada do with those surplus funds? Simply put, it spent them. Many of the Prime Minister's projections and the boasting that he often does in the House about his management of the economy when he was finance minister, he would not have anything to brag about if he did not have that surplus.

I will point out some of what the Prime Minister said in the past on this when he was the finance minister. When the former finance minister, now Prime Minister, spoke in the House on March 10, 1994, he stated:

--the Minister of Human Resources Development was able to announce through the budget that we were reducing unemployment insurance premiums which are in fact a tax on jobs.

The Prime Minister admitted in the House on March 10, 1994, that it was a tax. He went on to say:

We have begun to attack this cancer on job creation in this country.

Over the years we have had to force the Prime Minister to reduce those premiums that we all pay but they have not been reduced enough. The chief actuary of the fund has told us time and again that the rates could be reduced even further. If we point to that very high surplus in the fund, the $48 billion, it tells us that the government has been using the EI fund, not as an insurance program but as a tax to get more money out of the hind pockets of average Canadians. That is wrong. The Prime Minister could have done something about that over the years but did absolutely nothing.

The interesting thing is that to keep the EI surplus growing, because the government did not want the surplus to shrink as it would impact on its financial statements, it used the surplus to enhance its numbers. However, to keep the EI surplus growing, Chrétien and the former finance minister introduced Bill C-2 after the 2000 election to suspend the rate setting requirements of the Employment Insurance Act for 2002-03.

The act, by the way, requires that the premium revenue cover the cost of the benefits over the business cycle and that the rate levels be relatively stable. The Auditor General concluded that premium rates exceeded the maximum range suggested by the chief actuary for 1998 through 2001 and that the rates for 2001 and 2002 were inconsistent with the intent of the EI Act.

The Auditor General is the person who the Liberals like to attack. We all know about the work she did on the ad scam and how some Liberals attacked her at committee suggesting that her numbers were wrong and that their numbers were right. The Auditor General reported that $100 million had basically gone missing or, as some people have said, stolen, or was given away to some of the Liberal-friendly ad firms. The Auditor General, of course, has stood by her assessment of what went wrong, much to the displeasure of Liberal members, I might add.

The Auditor General has identified some of the weaknesses in the EI system. I will quote some of what she had to say in her 2003 report on the EI system, which, as we all know, is run by HRDC. At that time she talked about documents that should have been on the floor of the House of Commons. In other words, she said that Parliament should have been aware of what was going on in that fund. She stated:

Parliament is not given the full picture of the service's performance.

She went on to say:

HRDC uses three documents to report to Parliament.

The Report on Plans and Priorities presents HRDC's planned results, while the Departmental Performance Report presents and explains actual results. The Monitoring and Assessment Report (MAR) is required by the EI Act and presents various information on the EI programs.

In our view, these reports have not given Parliament the full picture of the service performance of the EI Income Benefits Program. They have not described important performance issues, such as the uneven speed and quality of processing claims across the country.

She states:

Currently, HRDC reports only national averages for key measures, giving parliamentarians only a very broad view of performance. For call centres, it reports the percentage of calls answered by a service representative within three minutes. But it does not report the larger percentage of calls that cannot get into the queue. It also does not report how it plans to meet its service targets in all areas of the country.

In other words, there is some failure within the department, but also a failure by the department to bring this to the floor of the House of Commons for closer scrutiny.

She recommends that:

Human Resources Development Canada should report measures that better capture service performance in sufficient detail to meet the information needs of parliamentarians. The Department should describe plans to meet performance targets when required.

Again, it is a veil of secrecy by the government over programs that we have some legitimate questions about. So when the government is suggesting changes to the program, I think we require full and open accounting so that we can discuss what those changes might be. If we do not have the proper information before us, it is pretty hard to make intelligent choices.

The Auditor General goes on in her report to refer to the surplus, which I have already mentioned. Again she follows up with a recommendation for a more complete picture for Parliament so that some of these decisions can be made in the proper context. This is really what it is all about: some accountability by the Government of Canada on a program that from time to time is legitimately questioned by Canadians, not only the recipients of the program but those who are still working and paying into the program.

I think the government has to listen to some of the recommendations that are being brought forward on the floor of the House of Commons and has to consider some of them before it starts tinkering with the act. I think it is incumbent upon the Government of Canada to listen to the opposition and to provide us with the information, so that, again, when those choices are made and those policies are brought forward, we can discuss them with some level of knowledge.

I will leave it at that. Again, one of my party's biggest concerns is the fact that the government has used the fund for the wrong purpose. It has used it to enhance its financial position. The government would in fact be $48 billion poorer. It has used this fund to enhance its financial position.

Therefore, on the debt repayment that the Government of Canada often brags about, we could question whether it would have been in a position to pay down any debt without the surplus that was generated in the EI fund. The numbers again speak for themselves. In fact, the Government of Canada's balanced position would have taken about six years longer to achieve if it had not had the excessive premiums being generated by the EI fund going into the piggy bank.

Now I will read to the House from some of the information I put together earlier this morning. By applying the EI surplus in this manner, the Prime Minister hid the true deficit-surplus situation of the government from Canadians.

Thus he was able to tell Canadians that the books were balanced as early as 1997-98. In actual fact, without the application of the EI surpluses to official figures, the government would not have been in the black until fiscal year 1999-2000.

In other words, as I mentioned earlier, it means that the finance minister, today's Prime Minister, would have taken a full six years more to balance the budget, not four as he claims.

We are estimating that the EI surplus this year will again add about $2.4 billion to the total. We could easily be looking at a surplus in that fund, generated over the years, in and around $50 billion this year.

I will leave that for my colleagues to consider. I look forward to any questions and responses they might have.

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BQ

Paul Crête

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Paul Crête (Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, I have listened with a great deal of interest to the remarks of my colleague, especially because he participated in the committee discussions when there was unanimous agreement on the need to reform the employment insurance program. I know that at the time, in his party, such unanimity did not come easily, and he made a significant contribution.

I would like the member to explain why there is, today, such unfairness in the employment insurance program. How is it possible that the government has accumulated a $45 billion surplus in the EI fund and yet it lets the unemployed and the workers get poorer and poorer? Why is the government not taking steps to remedy the situation? Why is the government disregarding the 17 recommendations made by its own members? Yet this Prime Minister said that he wants to address the democratic deficit. He has a concrete example that he could follow but he does nothing.

I would like to have my colleague's opinion on this.

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PC

Greg Thompson

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Greg Thompson

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate that question from my colleague because it is on the mark. In terms of asking why, if hon. members were listening carefully to some of my remarks earlier, they would have heard me say that one of the reasons why the government has refused to act on some of the recommendations, to bring them to the House, let us say, is simply that it is using the EI fund for general revenues to enhance its financial picture and to create balanced budgets.

As I mentioned at the conclusion of my speech, the so-called balanced budget that the Prime Minister brags about would have taken him six full years to create if he had not had that surplus in the fund. There is no desire by the Government of Canada to change this because it has simply used that fund for its own piggy bank, to the tune of over $40 billion. I think that pretty well answers the question.

In terms of the part of my colleague's question about the democratic deficit, is this not symptomatic of what has happened over the years with this government? Over this 10 year period, parliamentary committees have done a lot of good work. We can debate some of the details within some of these reports, but in general parliamentary committees do good work. They go through the whole exercise of bringing in witnesses, doing reports and all of the homework that goes into parliamentary committees, and doing the job they are focused on, only to find out that those recommendations are never acted on by the Government of Canada.

Here is a Prime Minister who has suggested that something has to be done about the democratic deficit but who in fact has contributed to the democratic deficit. He has refused to act on some of the good work that committees have performed over the past 10 years. Again, that point is well taken. I am glad the member brought up that point.

Actually the ball is in the Liberals' court. They still are the Government of Canada, just for another few short weeks, I hope, but the truth is that the Prime Minister could have done a number of these things months ago and in fact years ago. He has refused to act on some of the decisions and reports that have come out from time to time from various committees.

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BQ

Marcel Gagnon

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Marcel Gagnon (Champlain, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for his speech. Since he comes from the maritimes, he knows what we are talking about when it comes to cuts in employment insurance or the difficulties some workers have in getting employment insurance. He mentioned that we should take advantage of the last few days or weeks before the election is called to resolve the employment insurance problem. We have a golden opportunity to do so today.

Can he explain why the Liberal party refused to make this motion, a motion that is highly commendable in my view, votable? We could have resolved this problem once and for all before the election and kept it from becoming an eternal election promise never to be fulfilled.

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PC

Greg Thompson

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Greg Thompson

Mr. Speaker, the question is somewhat similar to the previous question, but the answer is that the government simply does not want to act on it because that would take away a revenue source for the government. Because it is a tax by any other name, is it not? It is supposed to be a premium but it ends up being as a tax. I quoted the Prime Minister from 1994 when he admitted that it was a tax and a drain on the economy. But unfortunately those were just words said by the then finance minister, today's Prime Minister. Those were just words.

The truth is that he is in the driver's seat. He could have done something and chose not to do anything. In fact, in the dying days of this Parliament, my colleague is absolutely right: The Prime Minister is in charge. The buck stops there; it is supposed to. He has the wheels of government in his hands, but the fact of the matter is that I am not going to hold my breath.

If his record proves anything, it is that he is very indecisive. He will not act on this. He prefers to have a steady flow of revenue coming in; not a premium but a tax by any other name. The government is using this as a tax. It is hiding this in general revenues. It would really surprise me if the Prime Minister were to change that in the dying days of his government.

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CA

Rob Anders

Canadian Alliance

Mr. Rob Anders (Calgary West, CPC)

Mr. Speaker, we are talking about employment insurance and I think there is one thing about it that frustrates a lot of people. What does the hon. member, my colleague, think about EI funds being milked off the backs of workers, with some people unable to claim for those benefits later on, and the idea that these funds were doled out either to Liberal friendly ad firms or into wasteful practices like the gun registry, which has been proven to be fairly ineffective and a waste of money? How does it make the hon. member fee to know that this money has gone to pay off Liberal cronies and friends?

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?

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Let us try to remain relevant, please.

We will hear from the hon. member for New Brunswick Southwest, if he wants to come back to the matter we are discussing.

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PC

Greg Thompson

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Greg Thompson

Mr. Speaker, I think what the member is saying is that there have been huge sources of revenue dollars flowing into the federal coffers and he is not completely pleased with how the Government of Canada has spent that money.

I think most of us would agree with him. We are talking about moneys flowing in, and if we take the Prime Minister at his word, he admitted that the EI premiums have been used as a tax by the Government of Canada. He was calling it a tax that is flowing into government coffers.

When we look at the $2 billion wasted on the gun registry, I think the member's point is well taken. Let us look at the $250 million misspent on the advertising scam, as the Auditor General states. That is the misspending of government money, of taxes that ordinary Canadians pay. I think his point is well taken.

The Prime Minister has a terrible track record of dealing with this mismanagement. As I said earlier, I think that in the dying days of the government we will see very little action on the part of the Prime Minister to change it. It is the status quo. He is not going to rock the boat. It is business as normal, according to the Prime Minister, and I would expect a continued spending spree before the election, which will just add to the waste of taxpayers' money.

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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, before I begin, may I say how interesting it is that members never stay on topic on the other side of the House, especially the official opposition.

I am pleased to speak in this House today to the Bloc motion on the need to reform employment insurance in a way that will serve the interests of Canadian workers.

Our goal since we came to power has been to help Canadians adapt to the labour market and the economy, which have evolved over the years. Our intentions have remained the same. Canadians can be proud of this country's strong economy, which has produced more than three million jobs since 1993.

The reforms introduced by the government to modernize the Employment Insurance Act have resulted in improved eligibility criteria and better benefits for Canadian workers. They help Canadians who are too sick to work, those who are not working because they have just had a child, or have to assume family responsibilities or provide care to a dying family member, and they help people who need temporary income support during periods of unemployment.

There is no doubt that many changes made to the act have benefited Canadians, including residents of Quebec. The changes have resulted in everything from improved parental leave to community solutions for the challenges faced by seasonal workers.

We realize that we constantly need to look at ways to improve the system so that it can continue to meet the needs of today's workers and adapt to changing economic conditions.

As we have seen over the past few years, economic conditions can quickly take an unexpected downturn.

That is why the program is constantly evolving based on solid evidence for change. The act has a monitoring and assessment process built in. However, there can be no debate that EI is achieving its primary objective of providing temporary income support to people who lose their jobs and helping them return to work.

In fulfillment of our commitment to address issues raised in the report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, “Beyond Bill C-2”, we have instituted several of the recommendations put forth by the committee. There are hon. members of the opposition who say nothing was done in terms of the committee's report and I would like to outline a few of them.

Among them, we modified the EI program so apprentices need only serve one two week waiting period over the duration of their apprenticeship program. We also made--and this is a very important change for seasonal workers--a small weeks provision a national and permanent feature of the EI program on November 18, 2001. The EI regulation relating to the way undeclared earnings are calculated was repealed in 2001.

Since 1996, the government has brought in some changes in the legislation to meet the changing needs of Canadians.

Yet, we should not forget the many problems we had to address in the previous unemployment insurance plan.

I would like to remind the House that, when we modernized the plan and replaced the previous legislation with a more progressive Employment Insurance Act, many part-time workers were not covered by the EI plan. Many of them were prisoners of the 15 hours a week rule, because employers were giving them the minimum number of hours of work in order to avoid paying EI premiums. When we switched to first dollar coverage, some 400,000 Canadians previously denied the EI benefits became covered.

This important change and other reforms we effected make for a plan that can change at the same pace as our economy and our society.

The variable entrance requirements, for example, make it possible to adjust requirements every four weeks, in each and every region of Canada, according to recent unemployment figures. It means that when workers are laid off overnight, eligibility requirements vary with the regional unemployment level.

Another example of our progress is the way we have responded to the needs of working parents. We extended EI maternity and parental benefits from six months to a full year and reduced the number of hours needed to qualify for the benefits from 700 to 600 hours. In fact, the Province of Quebec has one of the highest take-up rates for parental benefits in the entire country. As well, the entrance requirements for special benefits, whether maternity, parental, sickness or compassionate care, is also now 600 hours of work.

Our primary focus in reforming EI has been on enabling Canadians to acquire the new skills needed for jobs in the knowledge economy. The Government of Canada provides over $2 billion a year to the provinces and territories under EI part II to deliver employment measures to help Canadians find and keep work.

We have worked closely with the private sector and communities, funding a range of learning and skills development opportunities in communities all across the country, something recommended in “Beyond Bill C-2”. For instance, we have worked with regional partners developing innovative strategies that build on the work of local seasonal worker committees established in Quebec and New Brunswick in 2000.

Let me mention one of the projects funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, that is the Labour Market Innovations Program in Charlevoix. The community develops strategies to increase tourism and consequently the employment period for seasonal workers.

Those types of initiatives help upgrade the skills of the work force to ensure that seasonal workers have access to a large range of job opportunities. Up to now, we have invested more than $4 million in projects of this kind.

I would like to point out that since 1996, the Government of Canada has continually improved the EI program to meet the priorities of seasonal workers with an annual investment of more than $500 million. The changes that have been made helped those workers to have access to the EI program and prevented a reduction in the amount of benefits by frequent use. In 2001-02, seasonal workers received about $2.5 billion in regular and fishing benefits, or about one-third of the total benefits being paid for that type of benefits.

At the same time, however, among the many important changes we have made to the programs, there is an increased emphasis on the necessity of a strong workforce attachment. That is why we call it employment insurance instead of unemployment insurance. This serves as a reminder that EI provides temporary financial help to unemployed Canadians while they look for work or upgrade their skills. One of the ways we have reinforced this point is through the small weeks provision that encourages people to take all available work.

Our government will make adjustments to EI if they respond to the real needs of workers in a changing labour market.

Just in case my honourable colleagues have forgotten these additional facts, we have also, and there is proof, eased up the qualification requirements and increased the benefits paid out, as per the recommendations of the “Beyond Bill C-2” report. For example, we have reviewed the clawback provision.

This provision does not apply to those Canadians seeking temporary income support for the first time or getting special benefits anymore. Moreover, the intensity rule has been abolished because it did not increase the employment participation rate. We have also changed the rule for parents who re-enter the workplace after staying home for a while to take care of young children.

I would like to add that we have responded to the needs of workers, and to those of their employers. The employment insurance premiums have been reduced for ten years in a row, from $3.07 in 1994 to $1.98 in 2004. Canadian workers and Canadian businesses will save $10 billion compared to what they were paying ten years ago.

Budget 2003 launched consultations and a new permanent rate setting mechanism for 2005 and beyond. Today, in the human resources committee we listened to the employers who are in fact asking for a 10 year fixed rate.

The results of those consultations are currently under review. As we reinforced in budget 2004, it is our intention to introduce legislation to implement a new EI premium rate setting mechanism that better reflects the 21st century economy.

The bottom line is that these reforms are working and producing results for Canadians. EI is there for Canadians when they need it as a temporary measure.

In 2002-03, close to 1.87 million Canadians received approximately $12.3 billion in benefits. Moreover, according to data, 88% of workers in paid employment would be eligible to benefits if they lost their job. Even more relevant, since 1993, over three million new positions were created in the country, including 640,000 in Quebec, which represents an employment growth rate of 21%. Also, to date this year, in a few months alone, 61,000 full-time jobs were created across the country.

According to Statistics Canada data, general participation in the workforce is now 67.4% and a little better in Quebec, with a 67.8% rate, while it is 61% for women. These are almost record levels.

As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicated, Canada is next to last of all OECD countries for long-term unemployment rate. In 2002, less than 10% of all unemployed in Canada remained without work for 12 months or more.

There is always room for improvement. That is why we have reports from committees and that is why we take the reports that come from committees very seriously. I can assure hon. members of the opposition that we will make ongoing changes as we continue to monitor and assess the EI program.

The Auditor-General has said that the mechanism that is used by the government is actually one of the most competitive in terms of assuring that the system responds to the need. We are determined to ensure that this vitally important social program remains responsive to the individuals and communities its serves, as well as the economy.

However, all members in this place need to remember that EI is only part of the solution. The Government of Canada's priority is to ensure a strong economy that stimulates job creation, and invests in the skills and knowledge of Canadians so our country can be on the leading edge of innovation. We want to ensure Canadians are equipped with the tools they need to capitalize on opportunities in the knowledge economy and to prevent them from having to depend on EI.

I think everyone wants to work rather than collect EI.

Mr. Speaker, this issue demands the commitment and support of all Canadians. We must all work together, with the Government of Canada and our partners, employers and employees, to create an even stronger economy and a better future for all of us.

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BQ

Paul Crête

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Paul Crête (Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, it is really pitiful to hear such a speech. It contains a lot of falsehoods. First, we are told that 400,000 more people will be included in the plan. They will be allowed to contribute. Before, they were not. Now, they are allowed to contribute, but if they are women or young people, they will need 910 hours to be eligible. Many of them will never be eligible.

If they are seasonal workers, they will need more hours than before. The government even went as far as curtailing the number of weeks they are entitled to benefits. Next winter, if the transitional measures are not extended, we will be faced with a gap not of 10 to 12 weeks, but of 20 to 25 weeks. Do you know why they do that? To collect surpluses in the EI fund and use them to pay down the debt with the money taken from those in society who earn the least. That is totally revolting.

The parliamentary secretary was at the committee meeting on Tuesday morning. The member for Madawaska—Restigouche, a Liberal, was compelled to denounce her attitude. She was totally closed-minded to the needs of the unemployed and the reality they face. Could she explain why, three years after the unanimous report, the EI plan still discriminates against young people and women who re-enter the labour market, and why no follow-up has been given to the recommendation that self-employed workers should be admissible to the EI plan? How can it be explained?

How can one explain why, regarding parental leave, it took a court decision for the federal government to accept to sit down again at the negotiation table with Quebec? The court said that it was not a federal matter.

How can the government explain why, three years after the report was tabled, it still refuses to make the recommended changes to the EI plan? Is it because there is no money left in the fund because all the surpluses were used to pay down the national debt?

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LIB

Eleni Bakopanos

Liberal

Hon. Eleni Bakopanos

Mr. Speaker, the only people who are telling lies and distorting the facts are across from us here in the House. We know them, we know the political rhetoric of the Bloc Quebecois. There is nobody...

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May 6, 2004