Statement made on 30 September 2009 by Senator James Cowan
Hon. James S. Cowan (Leader of the Opposition):
Honourable senators, since it is not often that the opposition introduces a motion to pre-study a government bill, a few words of explanation are in order. I will begin with a little historical context, not on Bill C-50, but on the pre-study technique.
Pre-study has a long history in our chamber. It is a tool that was employed with great regularity through the 1970s and 1980s. It became so commonplace that pre-study of government legislation became the rule rather than the exception. As Senator Royce Frith, then Leader of the Opposition explained in 1991:
. . . when pre-study of bills began in the Senate it was generally in application to bills which were difficult and complex or where there were exceptionally serious time problems. Pre-study was also used to allow the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce, which started this practice, to suggest amendments to the House of Commons in cases where the Senate would find it difficult to amend the legislation, for example, and understandably, certain tax bills. What was originally intended to have but limited application became the rule. Bills were referred to Senate committees almost as a matter of course as soon as they were introduced in the House of Commons. Bills were referred for pre-study, at times even before committees had held their initial organizational meetings.
This evolution of ever more frequent pre-studies had an important impact on the Senate's legislative role and the concern that then developed about that impact was not limited to members of the opposition in this chamber.
The late Senator Finlay MacDonald, one of the leading members of the Senate's Progressive Conservative caucus during the Mulroney years, gave a scholarly speech on pre-study on June 9, 1988. He began his analysis with the observation that "it is a basic principle of British parliamentary procedure that a bill must be dealt with consecutively in both houses."
Senator MacDonald then went on to explain the reasons that underlay this important principle. He described how the Senate could waste its time examining and suggesting amendments to a bill that might never reach the Senate. He worried that "the exact contribution of the Senate to the legislative process becomes somewhat blurred, at least for the outsider. . . ."
As a result of these and other concerns, pre-study has been utilized much more judiciously since that time. I think this more conservative approach to pre-study has served the Senate well. When it has been used, as with the pre-study of Bill C-36, the Anti-terrorism Act in 2001, it has been for good reasons and with good results.
Although the differences between Bill C-36 and Bill C-50 are obviously greater than any apparent similarities, there are, in my opinion, compelling reasons for the Senate to consider a pre-study of this Employment Insurance bill also.
With respect to the bill itself, my first impression is that the measures proposed by the government in this legislation are simply inadequate for the majority of the Canadians who face unemployment during the current, massive downturn in our economy.
I invite colleagues to re-examine the report of our Standing Senate Committee on National Finance presented to the Senate on June 11, 2009, and particularly those sections of the report on the EI provisions of the 2009 Budget Implementation Act, to gain a better understanding of what is actually needed by those in our workforce at the present time. Our committee urged the government to take a comprehensive approach to the EI program. It recommended a system of tiered benefits, wider coverage, removal of the two-week waiting period and a standard 420-hour entrance requirement.
Honourable senators, it is shocking to me that the maximum EI weekly benefit today is $447, compared to $604 in 1996, and that the average benefit today is just $325 per week. This is below the poverty line for an individual, let alone for someone who is trying to support a family. According to the OECD, out of its 30 member countries, Canada is exceeded only by the United States in terms of jobless people living in poverty. Second worst! Surely we can do better.
What is the government's response to the plight of unemployed workers in this country? As best as I can understand it in Bill C-50, it is to select a worthy few for extra help and to tell the rest that they are on their own. I believe that the opening line of an op-ed that appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on September 23 caught the tone of the government's message. It began with the line: "Memo from the Prime Minister's Office to Canada's unemployed: It sucks to be you."
I could go on at some length about why I fear that Bill C-50 is a woefully inadequate response to the plight of the ever-increasing numbers of unemployed in this country. However, the purpose of my speech is not to dissect the provisions of Bill C-50 but to recommend to the Senate that our National Finance Committee have an opportunity to do so as quickly as possible.
The primary impetus for this motion arises from my concern about the coming into force provision of the bill. That provision reads, in part, as follows:
8. (1) Subsections 1(1) and 2(1) and (3) and sections 3 to 7 are deemed to have come into force on the second Sunday before the day on which this Act receives royal assent.
These are the sections that will provide some of the recently unemployed — and in the eyes of the government, deserving unemployed — with a few additional weeks of EI benefits.
This coming into force provision is very similar to the one that was contained in the recent budget implementation bill. Given our experience with that legislation, I am concerned about possible consequences if we wait until we actually receive Bill C-50 before starting our examination. I am concerned that a thorough committee study of the bill itself after second reading could result in some Canadians finding they missed the deadline for extra benefits that they would be otherwise entitled to receive under the bill should the Senate ultimately decide to pass it.
When the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, the Honourable Diane Finley, spoke at second reading to this bill in the other place on September 17, she said:
As proposed, this new, temporary measure would cover all new claims established from the start date, which will depend on when the legislation comes into force.
Again, should the Senate decide to pass Bill C-50, I do not believe the few Canadians who could benefit from its provisions should be jeopardized by an undue delay of the coming into force date.
Honourable senators, our Committee on National Finance has the experience and the expertise to conduct a thorough and impartial examination of the subject matter of Bill C-50. It should have an opportunity to do so without placing at risk the few meagre benefits the Conservative government is reluctantly prepared to give to some of those most in need of assistance. It is for this reason that I urge all colleagues to support this motion to ask our National Finance Committee to pre-study Bill C-50.