May 6, 2004

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The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

The hon. member for Kamouraska--Rivière-du-Loup--Témiscouata--Les Basques on a point of order.

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BQ

Paul Crête

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Paul Crête

Mr. Speaker, I would appreciate my colleague to withdraw the word “lies”. There were no lies. I never used such a word in my speech. You should read the blues, I never uttered the word “lies”.

I demand that the member withdraw the word “lies”.

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The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

One moment please.

I am informed that indeed certain words that were uttered are unacceptable. I ask the parliamentary secretary to withdraw what she has said.

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LIB

Eleni Bakopanos

Liberal

Hon. Eleni Bakopanos

Mr. Speaker, I still intended to withdraw them, but let us not forget that, on the other side of the House, someone said, “This is not true”. If a word can be used, another one can ultimately mean the same thing. However, I withdraw that word because I am very respectful of the House and have always been. After all, I was Assistant Deputy Chairman at one time.

As far as small weeks are concerned, I already said in my speech that we made changes in this regard. Yet, the member said that we did not.

Concerning the case that went to court, we launched an appeal because there are constitutional considerations. We are negotiating, at this time, with our provincial counterparts regarding parental leave. We hope to sign an agreement in principle soon. As for the court appeal, it is because there is a constitutional issue that must be resolved at a higher level.

We are not close-minded, and I do not accept that the member says that we were close-minded in committee. No one was close-minded, no one is insensitive toward workers. I think the language has to change on both sides of the House. Perhaps it is the member who started this type of exchange.

On the government side, a committee has already recommended that we look at the issue of self-employed workers. We are open-minded on this issue. No one, on this side of the House, has ever said that we are close-minded regarding self-employed workers. I myself raised this issue before the standing committee of the House.

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LIB

André Harvey

Liberal

Hon. André Harvey (Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I understand why my colleagues from the Bloc would be offended and upset, because the best job in this country is that of a Bloc Quebecois MP. When the government does something right, it is thanks to them, and when—

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An hon. member

The worst job is that of a Liberal MP with nothing to do.

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The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, but before things get out of hand, I would ask all members to keep their remarks relevant to the subject being debated. The member knows full well that the inflammatory comments he just made will trigger very strong reactions on the other side of the House; I do not think this is necessary at all.

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LIB

André Harvey

Liberal

Hon. André Harvey

Mr. Speaker, it will not be as inflammatory from now on because I will be talking about figures. For people who have an extremely sophisticated research bureau, I must say that when Bloc members decide to work on a particular issue, they have great difficulty getting their facts straight.

With regard to employment insurance, everybody agrees that improvements are made regularly and will continue to be made. Some Bloc members came to my riding and talked about a $157 million deficit in the EI fund. We did some research on these figures, and it was in fact $239 million that was paid in the last year for which the financial reporting had been done. As for the softwood lumber issue, it is always the same.

I have the figures for the last 20 years. In Quebec, over that period, there is a surplus of some $13 billion in the EI fund in favour of recipients. And the same applies for the last 10 or 11 years.

We are talking about numbers, and on this topic I would like to ask my colleague if we can also talk about initiatives funded with the employment insurance fund. Let's think about the annual transfers to Quebec and the labour force training programs that have been going on for eight years at an annual cost of $600 million. If we add up the numbers, the total is close to $5 billion. This year, there are also reductions in premiums which amount to $4.4 billion. That is interesting for the 14 million Canadians who pay EI premiums. We support the concept of program improvement and we will continue to do so.

However, I would appreciate my colleagues from the Bloc using actual and verifiable figures for all the issues on which they make presentations. We will also be ready for the election campaign and will come up with actual figures.

I would ask my colleague to explain why a supposedly responsible political party frequently releases figures that were inspired by the Canadian Labour Congress but invalidated everywhere in Canada.

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An hon. member

It is the government's budget.

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LIB

Eleni Bakopanos

Liberal

Hon. Eleni Bakopanos

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for his question. Indeed, anyone can juggle the figures.

Still, let us take the example of the Canadian Labour Congress, which said that only 35% of workers qualify for employment insurance. This figure represents the percentage of people who qualify for employment insurance, not the percentage of all workers who still collected benefits.

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An hon. member

Oh, oh.

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LIB

André Harvey

Liberal

Hon. André Harvey

It is always empty rhetoric. Let them all come and debate the issue at home. We will talk about figures.

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LIB

Eleni Bakopanos

Liberal

Hon. Eleni Bakopanos

As regards benefits, over $3 billion are transferred to Quebec each year. My colleague made the point and the figures are available if opposition and Bloc Quebecois members are interested. They will see that, in Quebec, benefits are equal to premiums.

When the Bloc Quebecois says that workers are paying more than they are getting, it does not take into account all the other benefits, such as parental leave, and the new system that we implemented to give people the opportunity to care for a family member who is sick. We put in place a whole set of measures.

Even though we point out our good initiatives, we know that the Bloc Quebecois is not interested only in helping workers. The Bloc does not want Canada to work. It does not want us to continue to look after workers, because it is only interested in separation and in trying to make the system fail.

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An hon. member

They like to organize protests.

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BQ

Suzanne Tremblay

Bloc Québécois

Mrs. Suzanne Tremblay (Rimouski—Neigette-et-la Mitis, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to speak today in the debate on the motion by my colleague from Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, which reads 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”.

I would like to take a few seconds to sort out some figures. I hope that the parliamentary secretary is listening carefully. It is rather strange to see the government strutting out a meaningless figure.

When people lose their job, the first thing they do is to check whether they might qualify for EI benefits. They are told that they have accumulated enough hours and that they qualify. This is the famous 80% or so of workers that the government is talking about.

When we talk about the 40% or so of workers who lose their job and who receive EI benefits, we are telling the truth also. It is the same reality that they are talking about.

In fact, a young worker, for example, cannot qualify if he is let go after having worked 800 hours at a first job. He would have needed 910 hours. With their 80%, they forget these people. And what about the woman who comes back to the labour market and does not have the required number of hours and then loses her job? She is not included either in the 80% the government is constantly bragging about.

The much vaunted 80% has to do with people who qualify for EI. But what about young people, older people, women and others who do not qualify? When one stops to consider what they have really put in place, it is a plan where only 40% of unemployed people qualify for benefits. They should stop saying that it is 80%. That is not the right figure. It is not 80% of the unemployed who get EI benefits; it is 40%. Possibly 39% or 41%, but somewhere close to 40%. So let us stop trotting out that figure, because it is a false one.

For the last eight years, we have been hearing the same old song from the government that does not understand a thing. I remember when Lloyd Axworthy was minister. He is the one who launched the reform. For at least two years, he rose to answer questions put by my hon. colleague from Mercier, who thought the reform did not make any sense and went as far as predicting the problems the reform would bring on. During two years, the minister told my colleague that she did not understand anything, that she did not know how to read and that she had not bothered reading the documentation. He kept saying that for two whole years. That is the only thing he told my colleague.

According to the hon. member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, they are aware of the problems, they realize that changes are needed; some have already been made here and there and they will make some more. But that is not what he used to say when he sat on this side of the House as a Conservative. He thought the reform brought forward by the Liberals did not make any sense.

We can only hold people hostage and play them for fools for so long. This is probably the last time I have the chance to speak in this House. So, please allow me to thank each and every one who helped me do the work I really enjoyed doing for the last 11 years.

However, the Parliament of Canada needs to come up with answers for the people. Whether the government is red, blue or any other colour, it needs to respect the people and stop lying. There is just so much we can take. Things are getting out of control. The employment insurance reform is a complete disaster.

During the 2000 election, I remember quite well the member for Bourassa, president of the Privy Council and the member for Outremont, who was then a minister, traveling across Quebec and saying: “Please, stop your demonstrations, do not demonstrate. We will take care of you after the election”. We had to wait to be on the eve of an election again for this government to decide to take care of those workers who have lost their jobs. This is nonsense. We are fed up with this system. People are fed up.

During the next election, people will send a clear message to the Prime Minister. In Quebec, at least, they have understood. I hope that in the rest of Canada people will also understand that it makes no sense to be governed by arrogant and incompetent people who line their pockets and empty those of the public. They are the ones who force people into unemployment, into a gap situation and who say that they will make small reforms and that they have already made some, as the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord was saying. This is truly an aberration...

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The Deputy Speaker

The hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development (Social Economy), on a point of order.

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LIB

Eleni Bakopanos

Liberal

Hon. Eleni Bakopanos

Mr. Speaker, I would like to know the difference between the words “to lie” and “a lie” used by the hon. member. Earlier, I had to withdraw what I had said; however, the words “to lie” have the same meaning as “a lie”. I ask that the hon. member withdraw her words.

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The Deputy Speaker

I understand that, from time to time, words may be used that are disturbing and, in certain contexts, even unparliamentary.

I listened closely to the comments of the hon. member for Rimouski--Neigette-et-la Mitis and, so far, I cannot see any reason to ask her to withdraw her words.

However, since the subject has been raised, I would ask the cooperation of the hon. members who will be taking part in this very important debate for the people of Canada to do so in a parliamentary atmosphere, using respectful words.

The hon. member for Rimouski--Neigette-et-la Mitis.

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BQ

Suzanne Tremblay

Bloc Québécois

Mrs. Suzanne Tremblay

I appreciate your comment, Mr. Speaker.

I would like to emphasize again a very important process which the hon. members must understand. Reference was made to the democratic deficit. We do have a democratic deficit in Canada, and a huge one at that.

The events of the past three or four months have made one thing clear: it is essential to have a fixed election date in order to know when an election will be called.

I could be making my last speech in this House and not be aware of it. Then again, I may get to make another speech next week, in September or in January 2005. No one can tell. If only I knew when I will be able to go on holiday, that would be just great. Instead, I have to wait, as the election call depends on what the polls and pundits have to say.

In 2000, just before the election, people were told not to worry, that changes were forthcoming. Since 2000, we have been saying and proving to the government, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the situation of seasonal workers makes no sense. It makes no sense to create such hardship for our fellow citizens who pay taxes, allowing the government to accumulate astronomical surpluses.

If we talk about lost revenue, it is because in every single one of the regions of Quebec, in all the ridings surveyed, the average loss is $40.5 million. That is the average for 75 ridings, ridings such as Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik, Ahuntsic, Beauce, Bourassa and so on. As an average they lost $40.5 million.

Our numbers are different from those of the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord because we do not have the same reference point. We take into account those 60% of workers who are not eligible to EI. It is a real number which creates hardship for 60% of the people.

Let us have a look at the system we had before. I am not a supporter of the overly generous system we had before where you needed 10 weeks of work to get 42 weeks of benefits. The Bloc Quebecois does not want to get back to that either. That is not what it wants.

The Bloc Quebecois has worked in good faith with members of all parties. That work resulted in a report containing 17 unanimous recommendations. What we want, among others, is an end to the discrimination against young people, women, and the elderly. We want to see an end to discrimination. It does not make sense, in view of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that people be the target of discrimination. It is a shame. We demand an end to this kind of discrimination and equal treatment for all.

We ask the government to make an effort on behalf of workers who are the victims of the seasonal industry. When he was on this side, the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord was singing from the same song sheet as us. Now that he has crossed the floor, he is singing a different tune. Are we here to be blind to the needs of our constituents or to represent those who put their trust in us and voted for us?

How can people in his riding have any confidence? He may change his mind again after the next election and find it makes no sense. If he lands up in the opposition as a Liberal member, will he go back to his old Conservative buddies, since they will be forming the government next time around? At least, I sincerely hope so, because we have had enough of a bunch of people who won't understand anything. I say this openly.

How many times have we risen in this House to state the need for a special program geared to older workers, those aged 55 and over?

A number of plants are closing all over Quebec and Canada because the government has decided to engage in free trade, for example. In the case of cotton, it decided to open our borders to products from Bangladesh and China, and this has brought about plant closures. People who have served their employers for 30 years have reached an age where they are no longer able to do a different job.

In the past, we had this kind of program for older workers. It was tailored to their needs and worked just fine. We also had pilot projects that worked extremely well. It is not as if the government does not have examples of what can be done with the billions of dollars of surplus it is stealing from the fund for purposes other than those of the people contributing weekly to their employers. They pay premiums to get insurance. But then, somebody comes along and says: “This is a nice pile of money. I can put it to some other use. I can use it as I like.” Part of the EI fund was put into the Canadian unity fund. Anyway, we do not know were this money came from.

This does not make any sense. Older workers need support from the government because they do not have an easy time. They are good citizens who served their country well and paid taxes for 25 or 30 years. When they lose their job, we should support them.

We also asked for an increase in the mean benefit rate to 60%. When you buy insurance for your home or your car, the insurer asks you what deductible amount you would like, $250, $500, $1,000 or whatever. Several things can make the insurance more or less expensive. Workers are being told this: “Your premiums will be so much, and you will have a two-week waiting period.” But they are not paid 100% of their salary. The two-week waiting period is similar to the deductible I choose in my insurance plan. It is like a two week waiting period, so I should get at least 60%. Workers are not asking for so much. They are asking for benefits that will replace 60% of their salary. They are really quite generous not to ask for more. The government pockets the difference. Right know the benefit rate is 55%.

In my opinion, and this is the basis of the reform, the fund should be managed by those who pay into it. The government withdrew in 1990. Before that, it paid one third, employers paid one third and employees paid one third. Now, employers contribute 50%, and employees contribute 50%. The government does not contribute to the EI fund anymore, but it says that that money belongs to it. It is shameful. That money belongs to the employers and employees who contribute to the fund.

Since when does the money in your bank account belong to somebody else? You may have agreed to share a joint account with your spouse, which is perfectly normal, and that is what employers and employees do. They agree to share a joint account, but the government has nothing to do with it. So it is clear and simple, it is the basis of the reform: we need an independent employment insurance fund managed by those who pay into it. We want an independent fund that is separate from government operations.

We want a fund similar to the pension fund. We want a fund that will capitalize surpluses and that will be managed by contributors, that is employers and employees. We want the premium rates to be established in a way that will create a balance between debits and credits.

Recently we became aware of a letter sent by the Prime Minister to the provinces, including Quebec. He told them to increase taxes, to get the money they need to discharge their responsibilities. What employers and employees want is to be able to manage the fund, to balance debits and credits and to build a reserve. The government's actuaries have always said we should do so. There would be no problem in taking all these things into account and in building the kind of reserve that would help us through tough times.

We are calling for an indepth reform of the employment insurance plan, which needs to be rethought from a to z .

I remember hearing a minister—who is now responsible for health—say that what they wanted to do in fact was to send everyone back to work. It is ridiculous.

Currently, one of the negative impacts of the employment insurance program is that it contributes to young people leaving our regions. This is disastrous. The Liberals must stop their nice rhetoric to the effect that they wanted to put everyone back to work. When a young person from the Gaspé or the Lower St. Lawrence region has worked 600 hours at a summer job, he or she is forced to go to Montreal or to Quebec City to complete the required number of hours of work, if he or she wants to be able to get his or her job back in the region the following year. Quite often, a young person who left the region to be able to continue to work does not come back in our region.

The government should stop wearing blinkers and look at the negative impacts of its reform to truly be able to conduct the in-depth employment insurance reform that is needed in Canada.

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LIB

André Harvey

Liberal

Hon. André Harvey (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for the interest that she is taking in my riding. This bodes well for the upcoming election campaign.

In politics, I would rather be part of the solution than making situations worse. This is true for everything. I want to ask the hon. member if, as regards the moneys collected by the government through the employment insurance program, through taxes and so on, we should not try to achieve a balance between the 14 million contributors and the 1.2 or 1.6 million claimants who qualify for benefits. It is at this level that a balance must be achieved.

I want to point out again to the hon. member that our role is to improve all existing programs in the country. As regards the employment insurance program, we will continue to improve it.

I want to ask the hon. member if, for example, she views as something positive the transfer of manpower training to the Quebec government, almost eight years ago? This measure resulted in close to $5 billion being transferred from the employment insurance fund to the Quebec government to manage manpower training programs.

I would like to ask her if the decrease in premiums, which were reduced by several billion dollars again this year, is not a valuable measure for the contributors. I would also like to ask her if the income tax cuts of nearly $100 billion for the last four to five years, which were part of the government's agenda, are not a very interesting measure for those who contribute to the collective growth and also pay employment insurance premiums?

Finally, I would like to ask my colleague, whom I respect deeply, if the government's role is not precisely to seek a balance between those who pay for a program and those who benefit from it? It is well and fine to speak about the $40 billion surplus, but one should not forget all the initiatives that were taken and implemented to help the people most in need.

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May 6, 2004