Statement made on 21 June 2012 by Senator Terry Mercer
Hon. Terry M. Mercer:
Honourable senators, usually I am honoured to rise to debate bills or motions in this chamber. Today is not one of those days. Today, we are debating Bill C-38, the budget implementation bill, a horrendous piece of legislation that guts environmental and fisheries policies, totally shortchanges EI recipients and changes the rules for retirement, among many other things.
I do not understand why we are calling it "a budget" because it is much more than that. The omnibus Bill C-38 brings in a wide variety of changes across departments by sneaking them in through the back door, in the guise of a budget bill, because the Reform Party majority government of Stephen Harper decided that it would force it upon Parliament.
The 753-clause supposed budget changes over 70 different federal acts. This is astronomical. At no time have I seen such blatant trickery in order to push an agenda. The Reform government should be ashamed of the way it is treating the environment, EI recipients and retirees who will now have to wait two more years for OAS. Let us not forget the 19,000 people who will be joining the ranks of the unemployed in this government's attempt to balance the books on the backs of hardworking Canadians because of its own shortsightedness and mishandling of its finances. Prime Minister Harper's cutbacks in this budget are just the beginning I fear. In Atlantic Canada we have already felt the sting of Mr. Harper's slash and burn tactics because we have shared a disproportionate number of cuts compared to the rest of the country. Cuts to Service Canada, for example, were already in progress before this so-called "budget" was introduced, and now the cuts are just going deeper. It is interesting to note that, in response to a written question, the Treasury Board of Canada released statistics showing that, from 2009 to 2011, federal government employment grew by 2.9 per cent nationwide. Federal employment grew 5.1 per cent in the Ottawa area. Federal employment shrunk by 1.5 per cent in Atlantic Canada. That is exactly the kind of service that we get from this government.
With the recent round of cuts, these numbers will get much worse. While the budget bill is far too large to comment on all of it, I would like to highlight some of the things in the bill that, in my view, are destroying our way of life. How a country treats its seniors — those people who have developed this country and have worked hard to promote its values — is paramount to how our society is viewed around the world. What does this government do? After promising, in the 2011 election campaign, not to cut pensions, Stephen Harper did it anyway. This is not the first time [...]. In a speech to seniors in December 2005, Mr. Harper said:
My government will fully preserve Old Age Security, the Guaranteed Income Supplement and the Canada Pension Plan and all projected future increases to these programs, and we will build on these commitments.
Mr. Harper promised that before winning the election in 2006.
In all seriousness, honourable senators, how many times will Mr. Harper mislead Canadians to get what he wants? Increasing the qualifying age for Old Age Security from 65 to 67 will mean that the average retiring Canadian will lose $12,000, and the lowest income Canadians will lose up to $30,000. What is worse is that 40 per cent of OAS recipients earn less than $20,000, and 53 per cent of them earn less than $25,000 a year.
How dare this government do this? There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the OAS is in trouble. Indeed, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has even said this change is not necessary, as Canada's old age security program is already sustainable. However, we all know what Prime Minister Harper thinks about the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
Canadians believed Mr. Harper when he said he would not change seniors' pensions. I hope these people remember exactly what Mr. Harper did in this budget when it comes time to vote again. I know I will be reminding them.
Honourable senators, the Harper Reformers do not care about our ecosystems either. They do not even believe that climate change exists and they do not care about our wildlife. Do not even get me started on the environment.
The budget bill eliminates the need for federal environmental assessments before a major project proceeds. Let us just slap up a building without checking to see if we are risking the extinction of a species. Let us just build a pipeline and not make sure that, in the event of an accident, it does not destroy an entire water supply. This is the way they are going.
With the changes to the National Energy Board, the Harper Reformers may be preventing stakeholders and local citizens from participating in the process.
Prime Minister Harper does not want to hear an objection to their plans, much the same as they do not want to hear from scientists who tell them climate change is real. Speaking of which, let us not forget that this bill also shuts down the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.
Mr. Harper appears to dislike the advice he was receiving on how to build a sustainable economy. In the face of dissent, he shuts it down.
Honourable senators, I now would like to talk about what I see as the worst part of this bill, and that is the change to the EI system. Without consulting any of the provinces, or really anyone except themselves, Mr. Harper has unilaterally redefined what "acceptable work" means for EI recipients. This bill even allows the government to revoke benefits, benefits that hard-working Canadians have paid for.
For Atlantic Canada especially, this will further add to the hardship many small communities already face.
According to the government, there are hundreds of thousands of job vacancies that go unfilled each year, which is their rationale for the changes they are making to what constitutes the definition of "acceptable" or "suitable" work.
Under the current act, claimants are disqualified from receiving benefits if they have not applied for "suitable" employment vacancies. The act does define instances where employment would not be deemed "suitable": first, if the vacancy arises as a consequence of a work stoppage or labour dispute, and of course we know that around here they just legislate them back to work anyway; second, if the vacancy is in the claimant's usual occupation but at a lower pay rate and/or in working conditions less favourable than the claimant has the right to expect; and third, if the vacancy is not in the claimant's usual occupation and is at a lower pay rate and/or in working conditions less favourable than the claimant has the right to expect.
Bill C-38 eliminates the last two conditions from the act and gives cabinet the power to determine what constitutes "suitable employment."
Excuse me, but how does a minister of the Crown know what suitable work is in the regions of the country? How does a minister from Ontario know what suitable work might be in Nova Scotia or British Columbia?
How is it possible for cabinet to unilaterally decide what the definition would be without any consultation with the very people they are purporting to represent? It is absolutely ridiculous for this government to claim it is representing the will of the people when it does not listen to the actual people.
This bill makes it easier for the government to unilaterally change things without having to go through the inconvenience of the whole democratic process. Do not let that get in the way; no, sir.
Honourable senators, the government has revealed no plans as to how this will work. What happens to the employer in the Annapolis Valley who normally hires migrant workers to pick his apples in the fall? If people are forced to accept jobs through this new EI scheme and they were told they should be picking apples in the Annapolis Valley and then they turn down the jobs, which I suspect many of them will, will it not then be too late for the farmer to hire migrant workers to fill the gap? You do not hire migrant workers by snapping your fingers; it takes a lot of planning to get that job done.
What happens then to the local economy when that farmer loses his crop? Has the government thought about such scenarios? These EI changes will force Canadians to find work further away from home, costing them more in transportation for a job that pays less and is less skilled than their level. Has the government thought about the effect this will have on their family? Does this sound logical to anyone? No.
This bill, the so-called jobs, growth and long-term prosperity act, does nothing to create jobs; in fact, it cuts jobs. Let us not forget the 19,000 public servants this government has fired.
For small communities that rely on seasonal work, changes to the EI system could spell disaster, especially since we do not really know how the changes will affect these communities.
Like with everything else Mr. Harper does, he does not want to hear from anyone about how these policies could affect them. Conservatives are forcing Canadians to perform jobs that they are probably overqualified for, using the threat of loss of benefits. I say shame on them for that.
There was no public consultation. The minister even admitted it. She did say, though, "I've also consulted extensively with our caucus members, more that I think anybody else would have. I hear from them daily, and their job is to represent their constituents and their points of view."
I certainly hope that the good people of Central Nova, Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, South Shore—St. Margaret's, and West Nova remember that between now and the next election. I hope the constituents of these four Conservative ridings in Nova Scotia, whose MPs approve of these EI changes, will be held to task. I know that I and my fellow Nova Scotian colleagues will be, and will be reminding Nova Scotians as often as possible.
Honourable senators, I could go on and on about how this budget further hurts Atlantic Canada. For example, $11 million in unspecified cuts to Marine Atlantic; 408 Parks Canada positions "affected" across Atlantic Canada; $17.9 million a year in cuts at ACOA; and $79.3 million a year in cuts at Fisheries and Oceans.
Honourable senators, we are left to wonder why, after hardly any job growth over the past year, the budget is getting rid of jobs and hiding behind a so-called austerity agenda.
This budget will do nothing to help create jobs or address Canadians' skills shortage. It does nothing to promote innovation and research. This budget hurts the future of seniors in their retirement. It does nothing to calm the fears Canadians have about the government's spending review and $5 billion in spending cuts and how it will affect their lives.
This budget kills environmental protections and hurts our ecosystems.
I ask all honourable senators to think about these things when it comes time to vote on this budget, because it will be my pleasure to vote "no."
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