Harper spins EI fiction

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Harper spins EI fiction
May 17, 2009

Stephen Harper is welcome to tell the 350,000 workers who have lost their jobs since October that Canada has a “very generous employment insurance system.” He is free to claim, “the system we have in place meets the needs of the market.”

But when the Prime Minister resorts to fabrication to deflect demands for EI reform, he crosses the line.

Last week in the House of Commons, Harper did that repeatedly.

He accused the Liberals, who have proposed a temporary relaxation of the eligibility rules for jobless benefits, of peddling a plan “to raise payroll taxes to the roof in perpetuity for all workers and small businesses.”

That is simply false. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has made it clear that his proposal is a short-term recession-relief measure. It would not require an increase in payroll taxes. They would remain frozen under the Liberal plan.

The Conservatives used this tactic themselves in January. They included an extra five weeks of EI benefits in their budget. They didn’t raise payroll taxes. They included the cost in their economic stimulus package. That is what the Liberals intend to do.

Harper told Parliament the Liberal plan “would do nothing for the economy or the recession.”

Actually, it would do quite a lot. It would make roughly 150,000 jobless Canadians eligible for EI benefits. They would use the money on food, rent, transportation and household necessities, providing direct stimulus to the economy.

This would work much faster than the government’s $12 billion infrastructure program, which is mired in red tape. Four months after the budget, only a handful of projects have been approved. Most of the cash is still sitting in Ottawa.

Harper said more than 80 per cent of Canadians who pay into the EI fund are receiving benefits.

Not according to Statistics Canada. The federal agency’s EI coverage survey, released in January, showed that 58.6 per cent of EI contributors collect benefits. What is more, millions of Canadians can’t pay into the government-administered fund because they’re self-employed or work on contract.

Ignatieff intends to introduce a formal motion next month calling on the government to set a uniform national standard of 360 hours of paid work to qualify for employment insurance. (The current threshold varies from 420 hours to 910 hours, depending on a worker’s location and employment history.) It would stay in place for the duration of the recession.

He says he is willing to fight an election on the issue.

If Harper chooses to defend the status quo while thousands of Canadians lose their jobs, that is his business. If he chooses to mislead the public, he can expect strenuous, factual resistance.

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