March 30, 2004 (37th Parliament, 3rd Session)


Brian Pallister

Canadian Alliance

Mr. Brian Pallister (Portage—Lisgar, CPC)

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to respond to the federal government's budget, a Seinfeld budget: much ado about nothing. However that is understandable given the circumstances faced by the government, a government that is under attack for its ethical challenges and for the largesse it has dispensed for self-serving motives at the expense of Canadians at large. It means that the government is not in a position to try to buy goodies just prior to election time, as is its custom. That has resulted in a budget that we have not seen from the government before, a budget that plays around the edges of talking about issues but does not do much about addressing them.
One of the key issues that should be addressed and was not addressed by the government, an issue lost in the culture of corruption of the government, is a scandalous issue. It is an issue far bigger and far more important than the $100 million that was given to Liberal friends in the sponsorship scandal. It is far bigger than the $2 billion gun registry fiasco and far bigger than the hundreds of millions for Challenger jets. It is enormous. That scandalous issue is the EI overcharge which, as the Auditor General pointed out in her most recent report, is now at a level of about $44 billion.
Just to be clear, the present Prime Minister when he was finance minister, Paul Martin Senior's son when he was finance minister, set the EI rate and politicized it. He took it away from an arm's length agency, the Canada Employment Insurance Commission, which was a partnership agency that worked in a multilateral manner to set EI rates. He politicized those rates three years ago and he has kept them artificially high. In so doing, he has enlarged the surplus. He has used the EI program as a cash cow. He has taken money from working Canadians under the auspices that it would be coming off their cheques and going into EI when in fact that is not the case and has not been the case for 10 years. The EI account has a surplus of $45 billion and has grown during this last fiscal year to a level approaching $50 billion. This is money the government has taken from working Canadians and small business people.
I listened to the member opposite earlier trying to wrap his arms closely around small business and the small business communities but it is those small businesses that have been fleeced by the government on the excessive EI premiums that have been taken from them.
The EI program itself is a subject for much larger debate. The program has never fulfilled its mandated objective properly, which is to provide temporary benefits to workers who are temporarily laid off. Instead, it has been criticized repeatedly by royal commissions, policy groups, think tanks and in the last five Auditor General's reports for the way in which it mismanages labour force management.
The fact is that this is a working tax. EI premiums are the most regressive form of tax. They are a payroll tax. When they are unnecessarily high, they punish the engine of growth in our economy, which is small businesses and working people. They punish it unnecessarily and the government has done that.
All this talk about compassion and caring, and the attempts to create the impression that this is a government that does care for Canadians, rings hollow and stands quite false in the graphic evidence that out of each and every Canadian household $6,000 has been taken under false pretences in unnecessary and excessive EI premiums. It has been used by the government for its own priority purposes. Let us not pretend that it has gone to EI. It has not been used to support the employment insurance program at all. It has been used to subsidize steamship companies. It has been used to hand out money to Liberal friendly advertising firms to do little or no work. It has been used for purposes not germane whatsoever to the employment insurance program. That is wrong.
When the finance minister stood last week and told us and the Canadian people that he had balanced the budget for seven consecutive years, that was not an accurate statement. If truth were an island, it would be an island uninhabited by that finance minister. The fact remains that the government has not balanced the budget in arguably three of the last seven years because the only way it could create the impression it had actually balanced the budget was through lifting EI premiums off the paycheques of working Canadians and throwing it into general revenue.
The Auditor General said that the government was breaking its own rules and that it should do something about it. The Auditor General is getting red in the face trying to convince the government, after five consecutive reports saying the same thing, that it should do something about it.
It has not. The reason it does not is simple. For every dime the government gives back to working people on their paycheques in reduced EI premiums, it loses $870 million in general revenue that it can throw toward unnecessary and wasteful expenditures. The government takes that money and parades around as if it could actually manage when the reality is quite the contrary. The fact of the matter is that the government cannot and does not manage effectively.
What is the cost of diverting funds from a dedicated program, which the EI program is? What is the real cost? What analysis has it done? When the government dishonestly diverts money from a dedicated program to other purposes, who pays for it? It is not just the payer. What is the impact on the payer?
What about a working couple? Let us say that they each make $30,000. They have lost $6,000 out of their household budget. That is money they cannot spend. That is money they cannot save for their child's education. That is money they cannot use to take a little trip with or to do home improvements with.
What about the small businessperson who has paid that extra 140% of $6,000? What about them? How much have they lost? They have lost the opportunity to expand, to invest in capital investment, to do research, or to hire other people.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development tells us that Canada's unemployment system is structurally unsound and creates artificially high unemployment rates. The government likes to say that unemployment is lower than it was 10 years ago. Well, alleluia. Unemployment around the world in most western democracies is lower than it was 10 years ago. We were in a worldwide recession at that time.
That is not the point. The point is that our unemployment rate is now 7.5%, which is higher than that of many of our competitors. Part of the reason is that we pay people to be unemployed. Part of the reason is that we punish people who pay into EI, so they cannot employ more people.
The sooner the government comes clean on this issue the better we will all be, because families suffer as a consequence. Family members work longer hours, take more overtime and are away from each other more than they should be. We work for half the year in this country to pay taxes. We are overtaxed by the government. Families suffer as a consequence. The money the government has taken out of my riding and out of the constituencies of other members here would be far better left in the hands of the people who earned it than it will ever be managed by this government opposite that is taking it from them.
The fact is that this budget presents this EI money as revenue, but it is actually money borrowed from working people and small businesspeople across Canada. It is borrowed from them. It has been taken under false pretences and borrowed from them. The fact of the matter is, it should be repaid.
The Prime Minister claims, when we raise questions concerning his association with Liberal ad companies and his closeness to them, that he is not close to them at all. He points to rogue bureaucrats or other people. He says he did not know. He says he was otherwise occupied. But he cannot point the finger at anyone else on this issue, because the fact is that he was responsible. It was he who set those rates and kept them artificially high. The fact is that he, as finance minister, removed the arm's length mechanism that was in place to make sure that we had fairer EI premiums established in this country.
Frankly, I have a lot more faith in the people of my riding to earn money and to manage it well than I do in this government. The fact remains that when the government takes the money off a working person's paycheque in that little box that says EI, it should have the dignity and decency to use it for employment insurance and not throw that money to its own petty projects.
There are many other things that I think are missing from the budget. In particular, there are issues of concern in terms of crime and public safety that are not addressed. Aboriginal policies are not addressed. Many serious concerns face the people of this country. They were looking for leadership. The fact remains that they did not see it. They did not get it.
I understand that the government is fearful. I understand the likelihood that it is in close proximity to the next election. I understand also that the Prime Minister has jumped up and down like a little boy in the back of the classroom saying “pick me, pick me” for 10 years, but the fact of the matter is, when we pick him to give us an answer to a question about an important policy issue, he does not have the answer. He is full of style but is missing substance. He has picked the pockets of taxpayers instead. I do not think the taxpayers of this country are going to be picking this man, based on what we have seen thus far from him. Making a lot of vague references to high priorities just does not cut it when it comes to providing leadership for the people of this country.
We have a political organization called the Conservative Party of Canada that is ready to go and ready to govern, with a leader of integrity who has demonstrated that integrity, a leader with ideas who has demonstrated his faith in those ideas. We have a team of people that I think is quite ready to demonstrate we can manage this country far better than it has been mismanaged by that group opposite us.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   The Budget
Full View