Mr. Pierre Paquette (Joliette, BQ)
Mr. Speaker, I will start by saying that I will share my time regarding Bill C-56 with the member for Terrebonne—Blainville.
When the government introduced Bill C-56 to make it possible for self-employed workers to receive special benefits, we were generally in favour of it. It is an idea that the Bloc Québécois has defended for a long time, that self-employed workers should have access to the employment insurance system, with some restrictions, of course. We imagined it would be much more inclusive, but this seems to be a step in the right direction. That is why we voted in favour of the bill at second reading, to refer it to a committee to be examined further.
Right from the start, however, we felt that the amount of $1.36 for every $100, which is not explicitly stated in the bill, was excessive. The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, through the Minister of National Revenue, announced that self-employed workers in Quebec would be asked to contribute $1.36 for every $100 of insurable earnings. Self-employed workers, especially women in Quebec, already have access to parental leave, which was implemented by the Parti Québécois some years ago. This program is very successful, and is partly responsible for the rather impressive and reassuring increase in the fertility rate in Quebec.
We therefore had some apprehensions, but once again, as I said, we wanted to give the government a chance, so we sent the bill to committee. Our fears quickly proved to be well founded. This premium of $1.36 per $100 would be used for two types of benefits: sickness benefits and compassionate care benefits. I would remind the House that we are talking about 15 weeks in the case of sickness benefits and six weeks in the case of compassionate care, if I remember correctly, so these are fairly minimal benefits. In my opinion, very few male and especially female workers in Quebec are going to enrol in this system at a cost of $1.36, even though enrolment is voluntary. As responsible legislators, we cannot accept this approach.
Consequently, in committee, we tried to amend the bill to ensure that the contribution rate for self-employed workers in Quebec would be fair, given the new coverage they were being offered. Moreover, the amendment was designed so that if another jurisdiction in Canada were to offer benefits such as parental or maternity leave or sickness or compassionate care benefits, there would be a formula to reflect that reality and prevent these self-employed workers from having to pay twice for the same type of coverage, either now or in the future.
We tried to debate this in committee, but the Liberals unfortunately did not see things our way, so we will be forced to vote against Bill C-56 at third reading.
In addition, the former EI chief actuary, Michel Bédard, took it upon himself to provide us with his assessment of what the contribution rate should be for self-employed workers in Quebec. He sent an email to my colleague from Chambly—Borduas, basing his calculations on the cost of these special benefits. We are talking about roughly $1 billion for parental or maternity leave. The rest was for compassionate care and sickness benefits. I would like to quote his conclusion:
Quebeckers should pay a contribution rate of $0.41 per $100 under Bill C-56 for sickness benefits. A rate of $1.36 per $100 would clearly be excessive.
The former actuary said that. If I recall correctly, he served in that position from 1991 to 2003, so he has the expertise to make the necessary calculations.
That amount also takes into account system administration costs. The amount the government announced is over three times too high given the new coverage it will be offering to self-employed Quebec workers. We do not want to have anything to do with a Conservative government plan that verges on usurious.
That is why we will vote against this bill. If the bill passes, the Bloc Québécois will take it upon itself to make sure self-employed workers in Quebec know that this plan is a rip-off.
We have to look at things from a broader perspective. We have to say no to this bill because it is just a way to get money from workers whose income is already, for the most part, relatively low. But we think that this scheme is just cover for a Conservative government agenda to bring down the deficit, which is growing on a monthly basis because of the ongoing economic crisis and the recession, which have resulted in lower revenue and higher spending.
Basically, a review of the Minister of Finance's latest documents clearly reveals that the Conservative government will once again use the employment insurance fund as a cash cow to fight the deficit. That is the agenda behind Bill C-56, and we will not stand for it. We did not stand for it when Paul Martin's Liberals used the employment insurance fund—premiums collected from workers and employers, including small and medium businesses—for purposes other than those for which the money was collected.
The Minister of Finance's documents are very clear: over the next few years, more than $15 billion will be taken out of the fund to pad the government's coffers. We find that deeply unfair and unproductive. Everyone knows that employment insurance premiums are an employment tax.
Proportionally speaking, what kind of businesses hire the most workers? Small and medium businesses. That is why this bill will perpetrate an injustice not only on workers, but also on the entrepreneurs who create the most jobs in our economy. That is especially true for Quebec.
We refuse to be complicit in another misappropriation of the employment insurance fund for other purposes. I would also remind the House that the Liberal government diverted somewhere between $55 million and $57 million for other purposes. Furthermore, two-thirds of the money used to pay down the deficit and create a surplus came from the employment insurance fund, and the rest came from unilateral cutbacks in federal transfers to the provinces. If memory serves, there was a surplus of approximately $67 billion from 1998 until the end of the Liberal reign.
We are now witnessing the same scenario. It is a case of déjà vu. We simply cannot support this completely unfair practice. It is unwarranted, because there are other ways to balance the budget. Bill C-56 demonstrates the Conservative government's willingness to use the employment insurance fund to tackle the deficit. It has other means at its disposal. Perhaps those means may require public debates. Perhaps it is easier for them to use, in an underhanded way, the EI fund and the premiums that workers and employers have to pay. Maybe this prevents them from having to hold public debates.
That said, it would be in line with the Conservative way, which involves concealing information and imposing its vision for socio-economic development. And I am not even talking about environmental and cultural decay.
By stating here today that we will vote against Bill C-56, we are sending a clear message that we do not agree with this method of tackling the deficit.
As I said, there are other ways, including taxation measures, for example, particularly in the highest tax brackets. We have seen some bureaucratic spending and spending on federal government propaganda, which have been of no use whatsoever, either economically and socially. Our finance critic presented a plan a few weeks ago.
Accordingly, it will come as no surprise that we cannot accept this bill and that the Bloc Québécois will be voting against Bill C-56.
Subtopic: Fairness for the Self-Employed Act