Hon. Diane Bellemare: Honourable senators, to begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.
Colleagues, the Speech from the Throne is ambitious: growing an economy that works for everyone, fighting climate change, moving forward on the path of reconciliation and making sure our communities are safe, healthy and inclusive. Indeed, all Canadians want to live in a country that is secure, prosperous, just and equitable. This begs the question: Can the federal government deliver on those promises? This is the subject of my speech.
I would argue that, in the current context, the federal government doesn’t have the means to fulfill its ambitions, but it could be different.
As you know, the federal government is limited in what it can do in a number of areas. Yes, it manages the military, the monetary policy, the Criminal Code and foreign relations, but its power to act is limited in a number of areas, such as health, education, training, income security, employment, labour, industrial development, climate change, security and even street violence. In order to solve complex problems with social, cultural, technological and environmental impacts, the government needs to better understand the situations, listen to stakeholders and rely on their contributions.
Although the government half-heartedly acknowledged this reality in the Speech from the Throne, it didn’t set out a strategy for taking collective, coherent and concerted action, even though doing so would be essential.
The federal government holds significant purchasing or spending power and uses it freely, but the production of many services depends on the provinces, civil society and the workers and businesses that create wealth.
The agenda set out in the Speech from the Throne won’t be achieved through a laissez-faire approach or increased reliance on consulting firms.
The best way forward involves collaboration and cooperation between governments and socio-economic partners. As you know, collaboration between public and private actors doesn’t happen spontaneously. To act together, we must agree on a vision and on results-based objectives. We need dialogue.
In free and democratic societies, it is social dialogue that allows collective action to be coordinated. Social dialogue is to collective action what the market is to commercial transactions. It is a place of exchange; one is the exchange of ideas; the other, money; and in both cases it is an institution.
Social dialogue seeks to create a consensus between the main actors in the work world and their democratic participation. Consensus then allows for important economic and social issues to be resolved. It also promotes social acceptance and peace, and helps to stimulate the economy. In short, social dialogue allows for a mutually beneficial collective strategy where losers can be compensated.
Social dialogue goes way beyond simple words — it is a practice that is embedded in a place and institutions. It is a style of public policy governance that contrasts with parliamentary political jousting.
Nevertheless, honourable senators, as legislators, it is important for us to recognize that social dialogue is a good practice and a governance tool that works. Several scientific studies have shown that democratic countries that rely on social dialogue adapt more quickly than others. They reform and adapt their social programs to new realities. Scandinavian countries are one example, but there are others. For example, Germany — which is a federation like Canada and relies on social dialogue for employment — managed to support its population’s income much more effectively than we did during the pandemic.
To be effective, social dialogue must meet certain conditions. The first and most important condition, as many studies have argued, is the government’s political will to engage. Second, it is important to create a place for dialogue as well as the institutions to support it. Participation must be balanced, ongoing, respectful, and the expected mandates must be well defined.
The United Nations, the World Bank, the OECD, and the International Labour Organization are making a strong and growing case for social dialogue.
The federal government has a responsibility to create the necessary conditions for establishing social dialogue at the national level. Even though at first glance this exercise may seem to cost a lot of time and energy, the countries that practise it all benefit in terms of membership, implementation, effectiveness and social justice.
Social dialogue has been identified by public policy experts as a key instrument for achieving a broad range of social goals. As you know, the Global Deal, a multi-stakeholder initiative for social dialogue and inclusive growth, has been created and supported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Labour Organization in line with Sustainable Development Goal 17 in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda.
The advisory board of this initiative is composed of senior advisers and economists who are well known, such as Olivier Blanchard, the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, and others. A brief produced by the Global Deal provides evidence that more effective social dialogue could help reduce inequalities, enhance the inclusiveness and performance of labour markets and help countries achieve their commitments under the 2030 Agenda at large. It is considered a key pillar for the success of the Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, and our government supports the Global Deal officially.
Just recently, on January 25, 2023, the European Commission made important recommendations to enhance social dialogue within member states of the European Union.
The European Commission initiative launched on January 25, 2023 — very recently — aims to promote social dialogue and the role of social partners at the European Union level and among individual states by providing technical, communicational and financial support.
In the community of nations, social dialogue is practised in 72 countries. These countries are also members of the International Association of Economic and Social Councils and Similar Institutions, created in 1999.
Even our neighbours to the south practise social dialogue. In each state of the U.S. territories, the United States has established social dialogue institutions on workforce that pursue objectives that are economic in nature such as business growth, as well as inclusion objectives for marginalized groups. These institutions are funded by the U.S. federal government and they were established through the Workforce Investment Act, which was adopted in 1988, then replaced by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014. There are workforce investment boards in 53 states and territories and 593 at the local level.
Colleagues, it is hard to understand why we don’t talk more about social dialogue in Canada and why the federal government dropped this practice over the decades.
Yet, Canada developed some remarkable social dialogue initiatives at the sectoral and provincial levels. Quebec stands out for its very structured social dialogue at the local, regional and sectoral levels when it comes to workplace health and safety, in the areas of labour, employment and workforce development.
The OECD praises the merit of a successful Canadian sectorial initiative around the commitment to phase out coal-fired power and ensure a successful transition by 2030. Our colleague Senator Yussuff played an important role in promoting this commitment.
In this chamber, some senators recognized the importance of social dialogue. In 2021, a group of senators produced a report entitled Rising to the Challenge of New Global Realities. This group, chaired by Senator Harder, included senators from all groups and caucuses — I was part of it, along with Senators Boehm, Cotter, Deacon from Nova Scotia, Dean, Downe, Harder, Klyne, Marshall, Marwah, Massicotte and Ringuette. It recommended that a prosperity council could be established, with the federal government acting as the catalyst. The council’s mandate would be to support cooperation among federal, provincial and territorial governments — to undertake consultations with civil society to foster social dialogue, and to share proposals for public policy action and relevant research findings with Canadians in order to build consensus across the country.
What’s keeping the federal government from providing financial and technical support for a national social dialogue? The federal government could reinstate its funding for sectoral committees. Canada could draw inspiration from the European Commission’s recent initiative.
In closing, the Senate has an opportunity to advance social dialogue around jobs and employment insurance. As you know, unions and employers’ associations worked together and came up with a budget-neutral way to participate in the Employment Insurance Commission as an advisory council. They want to transform the EI Commission’s consultative role into an advisory one.
I discussed this proposal in detail here on May 17, 2022. There’s no doubt that this new social dialogue tool would accelerate the adoption and implementation of the employment insurance reform many have been calling for.
EI reform has been a long time coming. The government wrapped up consultations on reform in the summer of 2022, but there’s no sign of a report yet even though consultations made it clear the system needs to be simpler, eligibility expanded and benefits increased, not to mention improving benefit delivery.
During the pandemic, the government was only able to deliver employment insurance benefits through Revenue Canada, which did a good job by the way. However, even today, the government and its departments, including Service Canada, are unable to deliver EI benefits in a reasonable period of time. I believe this would never have been tolerated under joint management.
Several organizations presented reform proposals. For example, on December 7, the Institute for Research on Public Policy presented a series of proposals for planned reforms. An advisory committee on employment insurance would be an ideal place to debate these recommendations and present a shared opinion to government. We could find mutually beneficial solutions to the thorny problem of seasonal unemployment, which is an obstacle that paralyzes governments of all political stripes.
Esteemed colleagues, let’s recall the matter of EI administrative tribunals. Last year, the government proposed a bill to reform these tribunals in part 4 of the budget implementation bill. Workers and companies were unanimous in calling for this reform. They were also almost unanimous in their opposition to the reform bill. Why? Things could have been different had this bill been reviewed by an advisory committee associated with the Employment Insurance Commission, in other words had social dialogue been involved.
Honourable senators, it is important and urgent to proceed with a system reform endorsed by the people who pay into the system. EI has an important role to play in a fair and equitable transition to a green economy. Many economists see a recession looming. We have to take action now. I think it is our duty to recognize what federal labour market partners need. They want to work together within a recognized institutional framework. It is our duty to act accordingly.
The Speech from the Throne affirms that “The government will work collaboratively with provinces, territories and other partners to deliver real results on what Canadians need.”
The government should walk the talk by introducing social dialogue mechanisms in its institutions, such as an enlarged advisory council in the Canada Employment Insurance Commission. As a complementary body, we should do our job. Thank you very much. Meegwetch.