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Pana Merchant

The Hon. Pana  Merchant, B.A. Appointed to the Senate by the Rt. Honourable Jean Chrétien, Senator Pana Merchant represents the province of Saskatchewan and the Senatorial Division of Saskatchewan. She has served in the Senate of Canada since December 12, 2002.

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Third reading of Bill C-38, An Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 29, 2012 and other measures

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Statement made on 28 June 2012 by Senator Jane Cordy

Hon. Jane Cordy:

Honourable senators, the government's omnibus bill, Bill C-38, continues its rapid passage through the Senate. The changes proposed in the so-called budget bill are significant. Containing some 750 clauses and modifying over 70 acts, this bill makes considerable changes to everything from Employment Insurance and Old Age Security to Parks Canada and environmental regulatory oversight. Many of these changes are outside the traditional purview of a budget bill and are going to drastically affect thousands of Canadians while avoiding the scrutiny of stand-alone pieces of legislation. This is an abuse of democracy and an abuse of power.

All these changes are under the guise of the government's financial plan. However, we, as parliamentarians, and Canadians in general, do not have a clear picture of how these changes will accomplish this goal, as Prime Minister Harper refuses to comply with his own accountability and transparency policies. His government continues to reject the Parliamentary Budget Officer's repeated requests for access to information detailing the $5.2 billion in spending cuts and how these cuts will affect programs. By order of the PMO, departments were told to withhold this information. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has every legal right to this information in order to analyze and account for the government's spending to provide parliamentarians with the knowledge to properly do their jobs when voting on a bill.

As we heard yesterday from Senator Ringuette, every Conservative member of the Finance Committee voted against inviting the Parliamentary Budget Officer to appear before their committee to better help them understand the costs or savings of budget items. One would think that Conservative committee members would want to hear from the Parliamentary Budget Officer to be better informed. Now, here we are, left in the Senate to vote on a bill without a complete understanding of how these modifications will take effect or the costs associated with them — in other words, financial information, which one would believe would be available when studying a budget bill. Surely, making parliamentarians better informed about costs and savings would be a positive thing.

Bill C-38 also continues Mr. Harper's long preferred tactic of divisive politics — the "us" versus "them" mentality that permeates from this Conservative government, pitting Canadian against Canadian for political gain.

One of the many groups targeted by this bill is unemployed Canadians and their Employment Insurance benefits. The government seems to view those unemployed Canadians receiving EI benefits, and particularly seasonal workers, as people who are trying to cheat the system. Mr. Harper's plan is to weed out these workers with unfair, sweeping changes to the EI system and threats of denied benefits — benefits that these unemployed Canadians pay into when they are working. Canadians do pay for EI premiums to receive the benefits, if needed.

The Harper government's main contention is with the repeat claimant. This is the claimant who has received EI benefits more than once. That would be seasonal workers such as those employed in the fishing industry, the construction industry, the tourism industry, the workers in the parliamentary restaurant and the translators in the Senate. The changes proposed in Bill C-38, by redefining "acceptable work," will force those receiving benefits to accept employment offering up to a 30 per cent pay cut in a job outside their area of training while also making them travel further away from their home for these lower-wage jobs. Benefits will be revoked if the claimant does not take the job. Surely, this government understands that we will stop having seasonal work when we stop having seasons. It is a fact of the Canadian economy.

These changes are not fair to either employees or employers. Employers are getting an employee who is there only until their other seasonal work begins again, or, even worse for employers, they will lose their trained workers every year. Shannon Phillips, from the Alberta Federation of Labour, who appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology on Bill C-38, expressed the concern of construction companies in Alberta that they will lose their trained seasonal workers each year as a result of changes to EI.

Bill C-38 does not stop with just threats of revoking EI benefits. The Harper government, with Bill C-38, will eliminate the regional Employment Insurance Board of Referees and umpires and replace them with a 74-member tribunal. This new Ottawa-based tribunal will be charged with hearing Employment Insurance, Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security appeals.

Of the 74 members of the tribunal, only 37 members will be dedicated to deal with Employment Insurance disputes. Last year, nearly 26,000 Employment Insurance appeals were heard. This government claims that the current appeal system is costly, slow and inefficient. I cannot see how the new Ottawa-based appeal system will be faster and more efficient with 37 people dealing with at least 26,000 appeals.

Currently, the three representatives on the Boards of Referees are members of their community and are familiar with the particular realities of the region. The local nature of the hearing also allows for the claimant to appear in person before the panel to present their case. The current Boards of Referees are located in communities around the country. Mr. Harper's supposedly new and improved system will remove the process from the community and now appeals will be heard by one Ottawa-based government appointee. By the way, there will be no further appeals allowed if the claimant is turned down by this one person, this one government appointee, because there will no longer be umpires as a result of Bill C-38.

Currently, it takes about 30 days from the time a person applies for an appeal until the appeal is heard. The board usually makes its decision on the day of the hearing and the claimant receives the decision within a week. I find it very hard to believe that 37 people based in Ottawa will deal with over 26,000 EI appeals each year and have the appeals heard within 30 days and the decisions out within a week after the hearing.

With the changes to EI that will be made if Bill C-38 passes — and it will because of the Conservative majority in the Senate — it is quite likely that the number of appeals will rise significantly. This will create even longer delays.

While this government continues to shut down and centralize employment services across the country, they boast of providing supportive employment technologies online. However, they fail to realize that 46 per cent of low-income families do not have access to Internet at home, and 40 per cent of Canada's unemployed do not have access to the Internet. The job phone lines are shutting down in favour of job email alerts, which is counterintuitive to the current data. Many of the unemployed will not have access to the job email alerts.

Compounding the issue is the fact that within the same bill proposing EI changes, the Harper government will cut funding to the Community Access Program, which provides Internet access for those Canadians who do not have access to it at home. How will these Canadians read the government's job email alerts? The decision is just wrong-headed and, if it was not such a serious matter, it would be laughable.

Many of these changes to the EI system seem to be reactionary in nature, and the only rationale used by this government is to punish those Canadians the Conservatives see as cheating the system while specifically targeting seasonal workers. This government continues to push its agenda unilaterally without information, without facts, without analysis and certainly without consultation.

This government does not believe in the concept of consultation and, indeed, Bill C-38 reconfirms this, as none of the Atlantic provinces' premiers were given the courtesy of input on changes to the EI system, a system that is vital to Atlantic Canada as seasonal industries make up a large percentage of its economies.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said she consulted with her provincial colleagues. However, the four premiers of the Atlantic provinces — Conservative Premier Alward of New Brunswick, Conservative Premier Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador, Premier Ghiz of Prince Edward Island and Premier Dexter of Nova Scotia — said they were not consulted by the minister.

Conservative Premier Dunderdale called the lack of consultation with the four Atlantic provinces on the changes to EI "disturbing." She then went on to say:

There seems to be a real disconnect between what the federal government is trying to achieve and the reality of peoples' lives in rural parts of the country — particularly here in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Conservative Premier Alward stated that Ottawa must be more upfront about its EI changes after not consulting with the provinces. He also stated that federal politicians should remember that Atlantic Canada's seasonal industries are an integral part of the entire country's economy.

Minister Finley did say that she consulted her Conservative MPs, however. In Question Period, I asked Senator LeBreton if this meant that the Conservative MPs from Nova Scotia supported the changes to EI that are in the budget. The leader in the Senate would not answer the question, but it is clear from their voting in the other place that Minister MacKay, Greg Kerr, Gerald Keddy and Scott Armstrong, all the Conservative MPs from my province of Nova Scotia, are in full agreement with the EI changes. I am curious to know what favourable comments they made to the minister when she consulted with them and took their advice.

Actually, Mr. Kerr mentioned in an email to my staffer that he was in favour of what he called "minor changes" to EI, although I would consider the proposed changes quite major. He went on to say that the details regarding EI changes would be out "shortly." This just highlights another example of leaving us to vote on a bill while this government continues to withhold vital details.

Minister Finley also mentioned that she may be open to feedback from the provinces. We all know that this government's feedback file is nothing more than a little blue bin. "Let's ram the bill through and then we will get your feedback." I do not think that will be very helpful.

We have changed government programs so that they involve new technologies. I understand that. However, Bill C-38 will stop federal funding of programs of the Community Access Program. According to a Statistics Canada study, only 54 per cent of low-income Canadians have access to computers and yet CAP sites are closing. Senator LeBreton stated in the chamber that this program has outlived its usefulness. However, recent studies by Industry Canada say that CAP sites are used by a wide variety of Canadians: those without high-speed Internet access, low-income Canadian families, seniors, older workers, new Canadians, Canadians needing to connect with government services, workers who travel and work in rural areas, job seekers, and youth in need of first-time employment. It seems that Industry Canada would say that the CAP sites are very useful. Yet, this budget bill cuts the funding to CAP sites while government departments use computers to communicate with Canadians — Canadians who need this information to find work.

Honourable senators, with this bill, the Harper government is also targeting some of Canada's most vulnerable citizens, low-income and disabled seniors. Under this government's plan, the eligibility age for Old Age Security will be raised from 65 to 67 years of age. Why is this change being made? According to the Harper government, the current system is unsustainable. This belief contradicts what third-party experts have said, what the Parliamentary Budget Officer has said, and even what the government's own experts claim: That the current system is, in fact, sustainable.

Raising the age from 65 to 67 will cost the average retiring Canadian $12,000 and the lowest-income senior up to $30,000. These changes to the OAS program hit Canada's most vulnerable seniors the hardest. Cutting government spending on the backs of Canada's most vulnerable citizens is just mean-spirited.

The changes to the OAS program will also hurt those Canadians who are disabled, who will have to wait an extra two years to receive their OAS and their GIC support.

Part of Bill C-38 is amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that will enhance the power for inspection and visits to the workplace of temporary foreign workers. This will affect employers who will have inspectors in their workplace. This may be a good thing, or it may not be such a good thing. We do not know. Who will do the inspections? How will they be done? How often will they be done? Will inspections be announced? None of these questions have been answered, but, hurry up, we have time allocation and we have to pass Bill C-38. The details will be out later.

The changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act provide this government with something else it seems to love — unchecked power and unaccountable decision making. These changes will see the minister gain the power to create new subclasses of economic immigrants and to set or change the rules governing those subclasses without parliamentary oversight and scrutiny getting in the way. The more centralized these decision-making processes are, the more politicized they can become.

We continue to diminish parliamentary oversight and to discourage public debate about our immigration system by expanding ministerial discretion. This omnibus bill eliminates almost 300 applicants from the Federal Skilled Worker Program. All Federal Skilled Worker Program applications made before February 27, 2008, for which a decision has not been made before March 29 of this year, will be gone. I suppose that is one way to get rid of a backlog — just erase the list.

These applicants have been waiting in the queue for years and years, putting their lives on hold. This breaks a promise to applicants who followed all the necessary steps to come to Canada but now, presto, you are gone and we have changed our minds. Where is the fairness?

What special efforts have been given to processing these applications? Why was there not an open discussion about this in 2008? Why were applicants not contacted to see if they were still interested? This certainly challenges the integrity of the system. The backlog was unfair, but cancelling the pre-2008 applicants was even more unfair.

Further amendments will drive down wages by allowing temporary foreign workers to be paid 15 per cent lower than the regional average wage and, together with EI recipients forced to take jobs at up to a 30 per cent pay cut, Bill C-38 will reduce incentives for employers to pay higher wages. We heard at committee that allowing temporary foreign workers to be paid less will particularly hurt non-unionized workers.

Once again we have an omnibus bill and once again there was little if any consultation about most parts of the so-called budget bill. The disrespect this government continues to show to Canadians and parliamentarians with its actions in Parliament and the way they conduct business is deplorable. Bill C-38 is another prime example of that. The bill contains some 750 clauses and modifies and changes over 70 acts, which will affect millions of Canadians.

Time allocation was brought in to limit debate, and the bill was rammed through both Houses of Parliament in the hopes that Canadians would not become aware of everything that is in it. The process used and the omnibus nature of the bill is an abuse of democracy and an abuse of power. Canadians deserve better. I cannot support this bill.

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