I thank both members for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell and Wellington—Halton Hills for their comments on this question currently before the Chair.
I have heard enough comments, unless there are new arguments to bring to this point of order.
The hon. member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell.
Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the hon. member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell on being re-elected for the third time in the House and for his hard work in the agricultural file. In my riding a very important sector is the agriculture community. He talked about seniors, small business, farmers, families, firefighters, and the list goes on. This is a comprehensive budget.
Would the hon. member expand a little more on the impact the budget will have on our agricultural community as we also help to expand additional markets to ensure we have a strong, stable supply of healthy foods not only nationally but around the world?
Mr. Speaker, at the outset I would like to note that I will be splitting my time with the member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell.
As I rise to speak formally in the House for the first time since my re-election, I would like to thank the constituents of Edmonton—St. Albert for once again placing their trust in me and returning me to this honourable chamber. I look forward to serving them in my capacity of their member of Parliament.
Many thanks also go to my campaign team and hundreds of volunteers for their hundreds and hundreds of hours of hard work. Special thanks to my family and friends who continued to support me in my role as a member of Parliament.
Our government has clearly demonstrated that our economic action plan is working. If anyone needs proof of this, just last week Statistics Canada announced over 22,000 new net jobs were created in the month of May, bringing the total number of net new jobs to 560,000 since July 2009. The jobless rate is at 7.4%, the lowest it has been in more than two years. This also marks the seventh straight quarter of economic growth.
A recent forecast predicted Canada's economy will grow by 3.2% in 2011, and a further 3.1% in 2012. The future for Canada is bright and the steady job growth rate demonstrates our government is clearly on the right track.
Canadians have given our government a strong mandate to focus on building a stable economy and securing jobs. The next phase of Canada's economic action plan stays the course with a prudent, low tax plan that will continue to support the economic recovery and create more jobs.
This budget contains new measures that will have a positive and lasting impact on the lives of every Canadian. These include a new children's art tax credit and a new family caregiver tax credit, extending the popular eco-energy retrofit program to help families lower their heating and electricity bills, enhancing the GIS so that low income seniors will receive additional annual benefits of up to $600 for single seniors and $840 for couples, and enhancing or extending the programs to help businesses keep workers and providing a hiring credit for small businesses to make new hires. These measures build on our government's strong record of support for families, seniors and small businesses, a record that I believe speaks for itself.
I would also draw attention to several significant specific achievements of this government. We have cut taxes more than 120 times since forming government and increased the amount Canadians can earn tax free. Thanks to our Conservative government's decisive tax relief actions, a typical family will save more than $3,000 a year in taxes. We reduced the GST from 7% to 6% to 5%, and the small business tax rate from 12% to 11%. Significantly, we have removed over 85,000 seniors from the tax rolls altogether, and introduced pension income splitting for seniors.
I am also pleased to see our government has set out a three point plan to eliminate the deficit, a plan that is achievable and measurable. As a result, we remain on track to balance the budget by 2014-15. I am proud of the work our government has done to bring our country through the global downturn. By all accounts, we have done a remarkable job and set an example for the entire world to follow. For these reasons, I will support this budget.
However, high taxes are still a problem for Canadian taxpayers. The Fraser Institute recently declared Monday, June 6 as tax freedom day, the day on which average Canadians have paid their total tax bill for the year and at that point start working for themselves.
In 2011, the average Canadian family will earn $93,831 in income and pay a total of $39,960 in taxes to all levels of government, or 42.6%. This year's tax freedom day is two days later than last year's, and ironically is due to our growing economy and Canadians' increasing incomes, which moved many of them into higher tax brackets. There is no sign that tax freedom day will arrive any sooner next year.
Over and over again I am asked, why is it so difficult for government to trim the excess when Canadians across the country have to cut back on their variable spending and make a conscious effort to stretch their hard-earned dollars to the limit. This budget optimistically predicts $4 billion in savings, or 1.5% of total federal spending. If federal departments were able to spend $4 billion less than expected last year without any planning or cuts, then I would suggest we could actually find additional savings within the budget's proposed $4 billion. Canadians expect nothing less of us, and we should reward their trust by delivering common sense federal spending proposals to utilize taxpayers' moneys effectively and efficiently.
Last week, the Manning Institute published research indicating that a vast majority of Canadians, over two-thirds, are becoming less dependent on government. Canadians expect less of government, except in core areas such as public safety. Canadians are increasingly more reliant on themselves, their families and volunteer organizations, and becoming less reliant on government. Canadian taxpayers expect government to focus on that which it can do effectively and efficiently.
Accordingly, the government will conduct a one-year government-wide strategic and operating review as part of our three-point plan to balance the budget. Perhaps one of the first areas we should focus our attention on is the duplication of federal and provincial departments and programs.
Theoretically, it is estimated that the federal government could reduce its operating budget by $44 billion a year and therefore eliminate the deficit by spending only in areas that fall under the federal government's exclusive jurisdiction, and I mention that theoretically. I am certainly not advocating leaving the provinces entirely to their own devices. However, one must seriously question the efficiency of parallel bureaucratic structures administering essentially the same programs. After all, there is only one taxpayer.
Some observers believe we may be facing a long-term structural deficit problem that would not be resolved by simply trimming a mere $4 billion of so-called government fat. A study for the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies asked why we have never considered “whether government can be restructured in any significant way as to deliver essentially the same level of service to the public at a significantly reduced cost and size.”
In this phase of our fiscal reality, all areas of government must fall under the microscope. A first and important step in this process is the elimination of the $2 per vote subsidy to all political parties. Although not mentioned in budget 2011, greater savings will be realized by the imminent elimination of the wasteful and ineffective long gun registry.
Eliminating unnecessary services and programs is easy. However, to effectively find our way back to balanced budgets, we must also seriously examine the cost of providing services deemed necessary. This examination will inevitably turn to the government's own human resources. We cannot continue to sustain a public sector whose growth outpaces every other category in size and compensation.
Between 1999 and 2009, the Canadian population increased by 11% but the federal government's civilian workforce grew by 35%, and public sector compensation grew by 59% compared to 30% in the private sector. Canada is fortunate to have an outstanding civil service. However, if balanced budgets are to be achieved, all unsustainable trends must be addressed. Perhaps we should view the predicted rise in attrition as an opportunity and not as a threat. The result would be a significantly less expensive public sector.
Based on the facts before us, some economists believe we are fast approaching a tipping point in our nation's finances. If we do not reduce government expenditures from 43% to 38% of GDP over the next decade, as recommended by the International Monetary Fund, invariably the result will be higher taxes, dangerous debt loads or both. As the experience of European countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal has demonstrated, this path must be avoided at all costs.
Canadians are increasingly demanding tax relief, balanced budget and smaller governments. It is always easier to borrow money when someone else will have to repay it than to cut spending. Similarly, it is always easier to say “yes” and cut a cheque than to say “no”. Saying “no” takes courage and resolve.
However, on May 2, Canadians gave this government a mandate to deliver on the promises it has made. A majority government is also an opportunity to set Canada on a permanent course toward greater fiscal responsibility. The budget before this House is an important first step in this pivotal journey.
moved that Bill C-624, An Act to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (providing protection for beneficiaries of long term disability benefits plans), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to speak to Bill C-624, An Act to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (providing protection for beneficiaries of long term disability benefits plans).
Before I tell members of the House what the bill does, let me them what it does not do. First, it is not about pensions. It is about long-term disability, LTD, and that only.
Second, the bill is not about Nortel, although that situation precipitated the bill. It is about the over one million employees in Canada who can be affected now and in the future if they find themselves in similar circumstances with respect to LTD plans.
The purpose of the bill is straightforward. It is to protect employees on long-term disability, but while its focus is narrow, it speaks to larger issues, of fairness, justice and respect.
It aims to correct a situation that leaves the most vulnerable of our workers in the most desperate of straits and reaffirms the simple principle that people who pay their dues and play by the rules have the right to expect that they will receive what was promised to them.
At the moment, approximately 1.1 million employees in Canada have disability benefits that are self-insured by their employers. If a company with self-funded long-term disability benefits goes bankrupt, its employees who depend on these benefits, are given the same standing as an unsecured creditor. When a company goes bankrupt, they should be first in line.
In 2001, Amy Stahlke in Benefits Canada magazine wrote about the impending problem. She said:
In Canada, there has been little regulation of self-insured plans. There is no requirement that employers set aside adequate reserves to cover future liabilities arising from these plans. If reserves are set aside, there is no restriction on how those funds are invested. There is also no obligation to keep funds in trust to protect them from creditors. This means that a bankruptcy could spell the end of the benefits plan, including benefits for individuals already on disability.
Employees who are disabled, who cannot work, should not be shunted aside. Their needs are not over when their employer goes under. They still need their medication. They still need treatment. They still need rehabilitation. They still need all of the things that their long-term disability would have helped to provide.
The bill proposes to protect these beneficiaries under long-term disability plans by granting them preferred status. By bringing LTD claimants to preferred status, employees are more likely to get their full benefit coverage up to age 65 to be able to pay their medical bills and continue, which is very important, to live outside of poverty.
Some may have concerns about the cost, the impact it might have on credit markets and about the overall competitiveness of our businesses, but when we look at the evidence we see that not only can this be done but that many countries around the world are already doing it.
Thirty-four of the 54 countries studied by the OECD and the World Bank already have either super-priority or preferred status for employee claims in their bankruptcy laws, so 34 of 54 countries have better laws than we do, and that is for all pension claims, not just long-term disability. They have properly functioning credit markets and are still competitive with these in place, so the two are not incompatible. We can protect our most vulnerable employees and retain dynamic credit markets and stay competitive. We can do both. Other countries do and it has given stability for these people and these companies.
Also, at least 12 countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom, require the payment of insurance premiums by their corporations to fund their public pension plans and disability income guaranty insurance programs.
The United Kingdom system goes even further. In 2004, it enacted the pension protection fund that states that if an insolvent company's long-term disability fund has been underfunded, the government will compensate the scheme to protect employees. The government backs it, but the government is not going to have to put in one red cent in what I am proposing.
Employees are therefore protected before an employer goes bankrupt because the government requires their company to fund the LTD funds. If there is a shortfall, the government will step in to cover it. In essence, the most vulnerable will be protected.
Even our friends south of the border in the United States, LTD employees have disability protection for pensioners through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Also, employees have legal recourse to go after LTD benefits after bankruptcy provided by their federal employee retirement income security act legislation. There is no such avenue here in Canada. They even have better protection in the states than we have in our country. They also have a more generous social security disability program, which pays more than twice what CPP disability pays the disabled in Canada. It is unbelievable that we treat sick employees this way.
Nowhere is the inequity of the present situation more starkly illustrated than in the case of the Nortel workers who live right outside Ottawa and in the surrounding areas. As that company goes about the business of divvying up its assets, over 400 of its employees on long-term disability are being cast aside.
Currently, the bankruptcy court has accepted an agreement for the dissolution of Nortel's health and welfare trust, pretty well taking it off the hook. The trust was set up to fund life insurance, long-term disability and other benefits for 18,000 Nortel workers. That fund has been underfunded for years and holds only 35% of the assets necessary to fund its obligations to all employees. This is a dire situation for Nortel's long-term disability employees whose average age is 54 years and may need benefits for many years to come.
I am going to tell a story about a lady who came to my office. She is not from my riding. She is from the riding of Glengarry—Prescott—Russell. It is a very sad story. It is a story about Josée Marin. She was a lab technologist at Nortel and a single mom. She had been on long-term disability since 2002. She suffers from Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel condition, and scleroderma, a chronic autoimmune disorder. She is in rough shape.
This is how bad it is. Under this agreement, because of the chronic underfunding of the trust by Nortel, Josée will see her monthly average benefit which she received on long-term disability go from $2,143 to $433. Effectively, she will be receiving only 20% of the income replacement benefit she has been receiving since she became disabled.
To make matters worse, Josée also faces high health care costs which were paid through her medical benefits. No more. These benefits ran out in January of this year, which adds a significant burden. The Conservatives could have made it right. This bill was in the other place and it had a chance to make this right. She could still be receiving benefits.
What will happen, of course, is that employees like Josée will increasingly turn to social assistance and make greater use of social services. One could say that is what they are there for, but people will have to make heart-wrenching decisions because there is not enough money to live and pay medical expenses. They will have to make heart-wrenching decisions on whether to buy medication or food for their families, to get treatment for their illnesses or to pay rent. Those are the decisions they are faced with after working many years.
Effectively, Nortel will have downloaded these costs onto taxpayers while the company walks away from its responsibilities.
Josée does not want to become a burden to the taxpayer or to her family. She just wants to be able to live the remaining years of her life in dignity, or as she has starkly stated:
I want to die in the comfort of my home, not in my car or on the street.
That is a pretty strong statement.
Nortel employees are not alone. Long-term disability workers from Pacific Newspaper Group, which is owned by CanWest faced this uncertainty last year. Thank goodness CanWest survived the bankruptcy. However, if the situation had led to liquidation, as in Nortel's case, those employees would have seen their benefits cut off as well.
This problem is not new. We have seen this kind of thing play out before. In 1988, when Massey Combines Corp. went into receivership, 350 employees saw their disability payments vanish, gone. Ten years later, the bankruptcy of Eaton's resulted in hundreds more being left without benefits. Everybody else is getting their money, but not the people on long-term disability.
Long-term disability is based on a simple bargain, if workers pay the fees, they will be covered should anything happen that makes it impossible for them to work. That is what it is all about. It is very simple.
In the case of Nortel and others, that bargain has been broken. In the future, if no action is taken, similar bargains can be broken again and again. As I said, one million workers in this country could be under this threat and taxpayers will have to pick up the costs.
The bill before the House today attempts to end this practice. It declares in no uncertain terms, that promising long-term support and making short-term decisions that leave those promises in tatters is not just a matter of liabilities that are unfunded, it is a matter of practices that are unfair, unjust and unacceptable.
This bill will not only bring a greater degree of fairness in the bankruptcy process, but will help protect some of our most vulnerable citizens now and in the future or, as Josée Marin said:
These changes to the bankruptcy act are about human decency. They ensure a situation like the one I have been through for the last year never happens to any critically ill or disabled worker ever again.
As I am wrapping up here, this reminds me of a couple of years ago when I introduced a bill in the House for employees who get sick. Right now there is only 15 weeks unemployment. My bill, at that time, would have given them a full year of unemployment.
Across the floor, the Conservative government quashed it. It was a really sad thing. Not only opposition members believed in that bill, many of the MPs across the way believed in it. They had people coming to their offices. I have a list of all the ridings around Ottawa where the Nortel workers had visited MPs, of all stripes, especially the Conservatives. They came into the offices with tears in their eyes, wondering how they were going to pay their medical bills.
There is no need of it. There is no need of it in today's society. There is no need for this to happen. There is no need for a wealthy country like ours, or countries that are rich, where everybody takes off with the money and people cannot pay their medical bills. They are going to be dying in their cars. They are going to be dying on the streets. And it is because we are not planning any action here. It is a sad what happened in the other House, but we cannot let it happen here.
I urge all members in the House to vote for this bill. It is the right thing to do. We are very fortunate, the 308 of us here. We have a good job. We represent people. We have a pension. We are going to be taken care of if we have medical problems. Our families are going to be taken care of.
People are not being taken care of. Other countries are doing it. We are not doing it. Why are we not doing it? Why are we letting this happen when these companies go bankrupt? Why should these people not be the first up to get their money?
It shows meanness. We do not have to be like that. I want my Conservative colleagues to really think about this over the break week. I want them to go back and check with the people who do case work in their ridings. Check and see the situation. It is not just Nortel. There are companies right across Canada that are having this problem.
I will ask everybody to support this bill. It is the right thing for us to do. This situation makes a mockery of our country when we do not take care of the people who need help.
Mr. Chair, I will be sharing the last five minutes of my speech with the member for Newmarket—Aurora as well as the member for Barrie.
I would like first of all to recognize the member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell and the member for Edmonton Centre who have taken on the leadership role and served our country in uniform and continue to serve our country in the House of Commons. Also, on behalf of my constituents and the men and women of the Canadian Forces whom I represent, I would like to thank the Minister of National Defence for his leadership and the excellent work he has done on behalf of our communities.
It is an honour for me to be able to say a few words about the men and women of the Canadian Forces. As the member of Parliament for Westlock--St. Paul, one of the greatest honours I have had has been to represent the men and women of CFB Edmonton as well as the men and women of CFB Cold Lake.
The people, the sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen, are the Canadian Forces' most important resources. They are what our military is all about. They are the reason the Canadian Forces make all Canadians so proud. They are the reason the Canadian Forces have earned so much respect from our allies and friends, so much gratitude from Canadians in distress at home and so much appreciation from the likes of the Dutch, the Afghans, the Haitians and many more.
What the Canadian Forces accomplish on our behalf in the name of Canada is simply remarkable. They face situations that most of us can barely imagine. They do it with professionalism, dedication and courage going beyond what is expected. They get the job done and they do it for us.
They put their country and compatriots before self so that we Canadians can be as safe as possible from the many threats of a volatile and unpredictable world.
From the moment this government took office, the Canadian Forces have been one of our highest priorities. Through the Canada first defence strategy we committed to deliver a strengthened and combat capable military, but this commitment is first and foremost a commitment to the men and women of the Canadian Forces. That is why the government is investing the resources needed to expand the size of our military and provide the necessary care for our men and women in uniform.
Despite demographic and retention challenges, the Canadian Forces are growing. Our military's recruitment efforts are delivering very impressive results with recruitment targets having been regularly met for the past few years.
This is in large part a testament to the amazing work that our military accomplishes for Canada. Young men and women from across the country are inspired by the Canadian Forces. They are wondering what it would be like to put on a uniform and represent their country. They are curious to explore the possibilities offered by a military career and are coming through the doors of recruitment centres.
Even some veterans who bring valuable experience with them are coming back to service with a new enthusiasm. The Canadian Forces have enrolled over 6,500 new regular force recruits each of the last three years, and recruitment efforts are on track to achieve our recruiting target once again this year.
During the last fiscal year the regular forces grew by 2,200 personnel, the highest net increase we have seen in several years. Over the past four years the regular force has grown by over 5,000 to reach over 68,000 men and women, close to the 70,000 objective set by this government.
This is great news. The government also remains committed to increasing the size of the reserve force, which is an essential component to the Canadians Forces. The government recognizes the remarkable contribution of reservists. That is why we passed legislation two years ago to protect the civilian jobs of reservists who are called upon to deploy on a Canadian Forces mission.
Reservists currently account for approximately 20% of the Canadian Forces personnel serving in Afghanistan. That is correct, 20%. These men and women take time away from their jobs to participate in this mission. Their contribution is crucial to augment the contingent of regular force personnel that are deployed.
With the Afghanistan mission winding down next year and with the total reserve force steadily growing, the number of active reservists will be drawn down slightly. Vacancies that have been filled by reservists these past years due to the shortage of regular force personnel are now being staffed by regulars again. That is only because of the amazing success of recruiting by the regular force.
Still, as effective as it may be, recruitment is only part of the equation. To expand and strengthen the Canadian Forces also requires efforts to retain the skilled and experienced personnel who are currently serving and efforts to attract the right personnel to fill military occupations that are under stress.
Our military includes an increasing number of personnel eligible for their pension, and recruitment and training for technical trades demands constant attention. That said, the Canadian Forces attrition rates remain relatively stable, lower than what is seen in our allies' militaries and, in fact, even in the Canadian private sector.
Moreover, our military has developed a comprehensive retention strategy that targets both new and long-serving members of our military. Action has been taken to reduce the number of voluntary releases during early stages of new military careers. The Canadian Forces has also prioritized the number of trades to fill. Several occupations in the Canadian Forces are currently under stress for a number of reasons, including competition with the civilian sector, long training periods and perception of the occupation among potential recruits. Many of these occupations need to be filled by well-trained individuals with highly specialized skills. We are talking about trades that are absolutely essential to the functioning of a modern military, trades like aerospace control operator, medical technician or naval communicator.
The Canadian Forces is targeting a number of occupations and implementing measures to help attract personnel, such as subsidized education and adjustments to pay levels. A targeted campaign has been developed to advertise military trades under stress. This campaign has garnered impressive results by generating an impact that is beyond expectations.
In addition, information campaigns across the country are targeting occupation shortfalls in the Canadian Forces. The Canadian navy, for example, recently sent three new display buses on the road. They contain interactive presentations demonstrating some of the navy's employment opportunities, including engineering and naval electronics.
Combined, these measures have already helped address shortfalls in many Canadian Forces' occupations, including physicians, engineers and pilots.
While I am speaking about these crucial trade shortfalls, let me make my own recruiting drive. I ask members to take this message back to their young constituents who are looking for an exciting way to make a living. Let them know that their military offers not only immense tradition but also adventure and unlimited career opportunities.
Having the right mix of people in the Canadian Forces also means taking care of our men and women in uniform and their families. The government recognizes that this is one of the core responsibilities. Our serving men and women and their families have particular needs that require thoughtful attention. They face many challenges resulting from the regular deployments and postings. On average, personnel who remain in the Canadian Forces for 20 years will move approximately five times over the course of their career. They will have to find a school. They will have to find daycare for their children. Many of their spouses will be continually looking for new employment. They are also confronted with unique health care needs related to injuries suffered in operations.
The least our country can do is to make sure the Canadian Forces personnel and their families receive appropriate support and care. This is a moral obligation for our society.
Over the past year, several measures have been taken to improve support provided to our men and women in uniform, including health care.
Last year, for example, the Minister of National Defence announced the establishment of the joint personnel support unit. The unit encompasses a network of integrated personnel support centres located across the country. The centres coordinate a range of services and case management programs for ill and injured Canadian Forces personnel, former personnel, their families, and the families of the deceased. They contribute to reducing the gaps and overlaps in the service so that no Canadian Forces member is left by the wayside.
The Canadian Forces has also initiated a series of programs and measures to help enhance how it identifies, prevents and treats mental health problems, such as operational stress injuries. It has launched a $52 million five-year plan that provides the funding required to hire mental health professionals and to implement a number of initiatives related to mental health. The Canadian Forces now has over 370 full-time mental health professionals and is working to hire more. In fact, when compared to our NATO allies, our military has the greatest ratio of mental health care workers to armed forces personnel.
The chief of the defence staff, General Natynczyk, launched “Be the Difference”, a mental health awareness campaign aimed at building a culture of understanding within the Canadian Forces and encouraging a strong community of support. The campaign is led by two non-clinical Canadian Forces mental health initiatives: the mental health and operational stress injury joint speakers bureau and the operational stress injury social support network.
In fact, Canada has become a world leader in fighting the stigmatization and rising awareness of operational stress injuries. These initiatives clearly demonstrate that mental health is a priority for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces. This is essential to the readiness of the Canadian Forces. Mental health is just as important as physical health, not only for the well-being of our men and women in uniform, but also for the operational effectiveness of the Canadian Forces.
Last month the government took another important step in improving health care for our military. The Minister of National Defence, as well as his parliamentary secretary, announced an agreement with the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton for the installation of a $1 million computer assisted rehabilitation environment, or CAREN virtual reality system. This is the second system in Canada funded by the Canadian Forces dedicated to clinical patient care, specifically in rehabilitating Canadian military personnel with both physical and mental injuries. Another will be installed this fall at the Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre.
As we continue our efforts to expand the Canadian Forces, we will continue to take good care of our military men and women. This will remain a core priority for our government, because our country asks so much of them.
Members of the Canadian Forces embody the best our country has to offer. Their commitment is unequalled and their work is praised around the world. Day after day they are defending and protecting Canadians. They are standing on guard at home and abroad. It is crucial that they be supported by their government and the very Canadians they are protecting.
The electoral district of Glengarry--Prescott--Russell (Ontario) has a population of 104,309 with 81,182 registered voters and 238 polling divisions.
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