Mr. Bryon Wilfert (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance, Lib.)
Mr. Speaker, first, I would like to make it clear to the member that I understand the question very well. I come to the House with 12 years of municipal experience and, as a former president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, I think I can say with some certainty that I understand the question.
However I would point out to the hon. member that if he wants to talk about the Constitution and about empowering municipal governments, those are different issues.
What the member is suggesting tonight, however, is something which I want to point out very clearly: the municipal governments are treated no differently than any other employer. All workers and employers are required to pay employment insurance premiums. As members know, for the last 10 years the rates have continually gone down since the government came into office.
The member raises the issue that this is unfair to municipalities because they raise money through the property taxes. However their workers benefit, obviously, if they are unemployed, similar to workers in any province or in the federal government.
The fact is that there is a responsibility for employees and employers to pay employment insurance premiums. The employer in this case happens to be city X, and that is what it is doing. Cities are not treated any differently or unfairly.
The GST issue is a whole different issue on which I will talk with the member some other time.
However I would point out to the member that the government reduced the EI premium rate for 2003 to $2.10 from $2.20, and proposed in budget 2003 to set the premium at $1.98. This will mean a savings of $1.1 billion in 2004, compared to 2003. Therefore we are continually reducing EI.
The minister has gone further. We know there is now a review, a whole EI setting mechanism and consultation, which will be completed at the end of this month. That is very important. We will get the stakeholders. Yes, it does go into consolidated revenue but that is because the Auditor General said, in 1986, that we could not have a separate EI account. That has been, and continues to be, something suggested in the House, which in fact is a fiction of some people's imagination. The reality is, yes, it goes in there.
The minister has said that we will have consultations, which is what he has been doing. We want to make sure we take into account and design a permanent premium setting rate, one that will realistically deal with those whose needs are there. We do not want it to be underfunded, and that is important.
However the municipal issue is a red herring because very clearly the municipalities are treated no differently than anyone else.
I sympathize with the member. I know the member is now showing an interest in municipal politics and I would be more than happy to talk to him about municipal politics any time. However the reality is that there is no difference.
I would say to him that had we written the Constitution today, instead of in 1867, and had certain amendments been accepted in 1981-82, the municipalities would have had many of the things that the member would like to see.
Subtopic: Message from the Senate