Mr. Pierre de Savoye (Portneuf)
Mr. Speaker, during the past sixty years, Quebec and Canada have gradually put in place a variety of social programs, more commonly known today as our social safety net. These programs are part of our Quebec and Canadian heritage, in that they reflect values that are important to our societies.
Two basic characteristics of social programs are universality and accessibility. The principle of universality means that all citizens of Quebec and Canada are entitled to receive benefits offered under the program. Accessibility means that insured individuals have reasonable access to the services offered, unhampered by any financial barriers.
Although formerly, the focus was on helping the poor and the destitute, Quebec and Canada have since opted for guaranteeing each citizen a minimum standard of living. This guarantee is now considered a right.
To this end, the federal government has, over the years, put in place a number of social programs, including medicare, the Canada Assistance Plan, family allowances, old age security, the guaranteed income supplement, spousal allowances, unemployment insurance and the now defunct social housing program.
Social programs are today one of the main responsibilities of the federal government, which designs and implements some of these programs directly, as in the case of old age security and unemployment insurance. The government indirectly provides funding for other programs while setting certain rules for their implementation, as in the case of welfare payments and daycare under the Canada Assistance Plan and provincial spending on health care.
According to this funding format, federal spending on social programs varies between 70 and 80 billion dollars or two-thirds of federal program spending.
Although existing social programs, with the exception of unemployment insurance and pensions, come under provincial jurisdiction, the federal government has always been able to impose universality and accessibility as well as the application of certain criteria, thanks to its spending power.
Practically speaking, only two programs are truly universal, up to a point: health care and old age security. As far as the latter is concerned, the federal government now requires the elderly to pay back part of their pension cheque if their net income exceeds $50,000, and the entire amount if net income exceeds $76,000. One sixth of federal revenues, or $20 billion, are allocated under this program. This is an enormous amount which will increase
as the population ages. What will happen then in terms of universality and accessibility?
Universality as it applies to family allowances was eliminated in the 1992 budget. As I indicated a few moments ago, the previous government scrapped universal old age pensions by imposing a special tax. Today, health care universality and accessibility are threatened in several provinces where user fees are being considered.
It has been stated repeatedly over the past several years that Canada is no longer able to guarantee the universality of its social programs. Some argue that Canada's social safety net is outmoded and too expensive. The fact is that the system was put in place during the 1960s when jobs and money were plentiful. However, the fundamental principles are as important today as they were then. It should be noted that Canada spends less on these programs on a per capita basis than most Western industrialized nations.
Moreover, universality of social programs is a question of social justice. Without universality, without accessibility, the poor will become increasingly marginalized in our society and the middle class will be at the mercy of misfortune.
We have a decision to make. If we believe that all citizens are entitled to universal and accessible social programs, then we have to take steps to eliminate the loopholes in our tax system and create jobs to build up our tax revenues. When each and every Canadian works and contributes his or her fair, reasonable share of taxes, only then will we be able to cover the cost of the system.
I would like at this time to briefly review a few of the most important programs, starting with unemployment insurance.
The aim of this program, which was launched in 1941, was to provide assistance to workers who had lost their jobs and to tide them over until they found another job. It was intended to be a temporary measure. Today, many people draw unemployment insurance every year in a planned manner. They do so simply by working the required number of weeks to qualify. Theoretically, the program should finance itself. However, it is roughly $400 million in the red on revenues of $19 billion. Given the current rules of the game, recipients receive little encouragement or help in finding a stable job and too little is done to train those who are underqualified.
I know of people in my riding who currently collect unemployment insurance and who, in spite of their efforts and desire to improve their employability, are unable to find work or receive training. Unfortunately I also know of others who would rather collect generous benefits than work at an available low paying job.
We must not blame those who live off the UI program. They are only reacting very rationally to ludicrous incentives. The rules of this program are socially and economically counterproductive. Within two generations, these rules have profoundly changed the way people behave. As the great Quebec poet Félix Leclerc said 20 years ago, when people are paid to do nothing, they become zombies.
The jobs that are available today require highly skilled workers. Or people can start up their own small business. Our unemployment insurance program is woefully inadequate when it comes to helping people acquire the necessary skills or start up a business.
The unemployment insurance program is universal and accessible only in so far as collecting premiums and paying out benefits are concerned. There is absolutely no such universality or accessibility when it comes to supporting training or entrepreneurship. Twenty-five thousand Quebecers are currently waiting for training to which they do not have access.
Furthermore, the increase in the number of weeks of insurable employment needed to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits and the reduction in benefits have increased the social welfare costs of all provinces and of Quebec, simply by transferring the costs from one level of government to another.
The previous government completely abdicated its social responsibilities for unemployment insurance. Not only did its fiscal and monetary measures contribute to a dramatic increase in unemployment, but faced with this situation which could have been avoided, it changed in cowardly fashion the criteria and duration of eligibility so as to offload onto the provinces the burden of the unemployment which it had created. While everything indicated the need to invest energetically in training and small business creation, the previous government took paltry, inadequate measures.
In Quebec, the labour force development corporation was quite prepared to take useful action right away to correct the misdeeds of the previous government with respect to unemployment. The then Minister of Employment and Immigration, however, after the Charlottetown accord was rejected, refused to let Quebec act as it should have done.
The unemployment insurance program must be retargeted to training and job creation in a way that is universal and accessible. In this regard, Quebec and the provinces have a leading role to play.
I would now like to share my thoughts on the Canada assistance plan with my colleagues in the House. In theory, this program ensures that Ottawa pays half the authorized welfare
expenses of the municipalities and provinces. Originally, this program was designed to ensure continuous support for a small number of individuals who could not work.
Today, the situation is very different. This program helps many people who are able to work but cannot find any jobs. Even worse, little is done to help them re-enter the labour market. Many welfare recipients are unemployed people who have used up their unemployment insurance benefits. What I said earlier about training and entrepreneurship applies here too.
Social assistance is universal and accessible as far as the right to benefits is concerned, but few beneficiaries of this program have access to serious measures that would put them back to work through specialized training or help in creating their own employment. In this sense, the program is neither universal nor accessible.
Here we have an example of a perverse consequence of Canadian federalism. By reducing unemployment insurance coverage, the federal government has made honest unemployed people into welfare recipients dependent on their province or on Quebec. For the provinces and Quebec, the purpose of welfare was to provide extended support to people unable to work. The federal government's unilateral action has undermined the plans of the provinces and of Quebec.
By retargeting the unemployment insurance program, the balance of the welfare program will be restored and these two programs will then provide the universality and accessibility which the people of Quebec and Canada need.
There is another social program for which the issue of universality and accessibility should be raised, because this program is no longer in any way universal or accessible, despite crying needs. This is the social housing program.
Before 1986, the federal government helped build about 25,000 new housing units every year. Since then, as a result of a series of budgetary measures, this effort was reduced to 13,000 units. In its 1992-93 budget, the previous government abolished its co-operative housing program.
In Canada, at least 57 per cent of women and 30 per cent of men are tenants. Almost two thirds of the residents of public housing are women. Young women who head single-parent families, women working for low pay and older women on limited income must have access to affordably priced housing, as before. Already thousands of women spend a disproportionate share of their income on housing.
As regards social housing, universality and accessibility are not only moral but also economic necessities. Indeed, people, families and children who live in inadequate dwellings are more likely to experience problems and, consequently, more likely to perform poorly at work or in school. They are also more likely to consume excessive amounts of intoxicating substances, to resort to violence and even to commit offences.
Abolishing the social housing program was a very near-sighted economic measure. The resulting problems in terms of health, unemployment and criminality will be very serious.
Medicare is a program which Quebecers and Canadians are proud of. Health insurance, along with post-secondary training, are financed through what is called established programs financing. Under this initiative implemented in 1977, every province is guaranteed a contribution proportional to its population and to the economic growth of Canada, minus an amount raised by each province through taxes. Let us not forget that, since 1986, the federal government has been reducing its financing, in terms of its rate of increase, regarding health services.
Also, in 1990, Ottawa unilaterally decided that its contribution would no longer be tied to economic growth. Consequently, the per capita contribution is now frozen until 1994-95 and, if the situation persists, it will eventually be totally covered by the tax levy in each province, including Quebec. Therefore, the federal government will no longer have to make any contribution. It must be pointed out, since this is yet another example of the perverse consequences of Canadian federalism, that all these measures were unilaterally implemented, without the approval of Quebec or of any other province, in spite of the formal agreement reached in 1977. So, from 1978 to 1993, the federal government's contribution to health and post-secondary education programs in Quebec dropped from 47 per cent to 34 per cent.
Therefore, a freeze on federal transfers for EPF is in itself a serious threat to accessibility and universality. This trap set up by the federal government makes it even harder for Quebec and the other provinces to make the difficult choices they face to make up for their losses and to reduce their tax burden.
The federal government must realize that increasing the tax burden of Quebec and the other provinces will result in the emergence of a two-tier health care system.
Since the Liberal Party took office, I noticed two trends among its Cabinet members: some ministers are sensitive to the need for universality and accessibility, while others are more concerned by the financing aspect.
Consequently, we hear terms such as restructuring, profitability, reform and review, which are all as vague as they are disturbing. What are the true intentions of the government? If it wants to redirect social programs, while preserving universality and accessibility, that would already be more encouraging,
although we would have to define the targets to be given priority.
But if the government wants to cut the social budget, then there is every reason to be really concerned. Indeed, cuts of this type will invariably generate increased costs further along.
When economists tell the Minister of Finance that Canadians can no longer live above their means and must expect a lower standard of living, do they also tell him that it is the federal bureaucracy which is the most costly element and that a lower standard of living should start there? Streamlining is something which can be done within the federal government and bureaucracy.
Recently, I read that the Minister of Human Resources Development had stated that he would not be very patient with those people in three-piece suits who insist that the cuts should apply to social programs, while they themselves are not prepared to do much. I agree with the hon. minister, but I remind him that this three-piece suit mentality also exists within the public service.
Also, the hon. minister was upset by the calls of the Bloc Quebecois for the federal government not to meddle in the fields of training, education and welfare, which are under provincial jurisdiction.
The minister explained that these problems affect the whole country and that we need national programs to solve them.
This is where I completely disagree with the minister. Training, education and welfare are problems a number of nations are faced with. If I were to follow the minister's reasoning, the UN would then be entrusted with the task of solving such problems. But of course the minister would answer that only a country has all the facts and the vision to understand its real problems. If the minister were to take his argument one step further, he would come, I think, to the right conclusion.
Mr. Speaker, to blindly cut social programs will not be helpful, quite the opposite. Our social policies must support the needy, improve skills and respect human decency.
The government must remember that they can cut unemployment expenses simply by reducing unemployment and that they can cut health insurance expenses by providing housing for the underprivileged, for example.
The Official Opposition will watch the government's every move and criticize any attempt to cut the services Quebec and Canadian society so badly need. We will automatically criticize any lack of consultation with the provinces and with Quebec, any administrative duplication reducing program efficiency, any costly and useless attempt to centralize the various systems, and any cut to programs aimed at meeting the special needs of Quebec or other provinces.
Finally, Canadians and Quebecers can rest assured that the Official Opposition will do everything possible in this House to protect their interests and their dignity.
Topic: Government Orders
Subtopic: Social Security System