Playing politics with the jobless

TheStar.com – Editorials – Playing politics with the jobless
September 19, 2009

In a year of economic tumult, with unemployment rising inexorably, politicians from all parties have been debating the holes in Canada’s employment insurance program incessantly.

Now, all these months later, the Conservative government has made its best offer. And, thanks to the politics of the moment – notably the support of the Conservative plan from the New Democratic Party, which fears an election would leave many of its MPs unemployed – Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems destined to get his way.

Heretofore, the opposition parties had been more or less united in favour of a plan that would have dramatically eased eligibility requirements for EI. That plan recognized that even if the recession is over, unemployment will persist at the highest levels in recent memory.

Instead, the Harper government, still closing its eyes to the nature of the economic downturn, has put forward a churlish plan that would do nothing of the sort.

The government’s grudging response shows an astonishing lack of empathy by apportioning blame: distinguishing between those who are deserving and those who are indolent; between those who are blameless and those who are shiftless.

The much-touted plan targets “long-tenured workers” with at least seven years of contributions to the EI program over the past decade. These putative model workers must not have taken EI benefits for more than 35 weeks over the past five years. For those who meet the Conservative government’s long-tenure template, benefits would be extended by between five and 20 weeks. Human Resources Minister Diane Finley says this program will help 190,000 workers at a cost of $940 million over two years.

For anyone else – for auto workers who faced frequent layoffs in recent years; for young workers with less than seven years in the job market; for anyone who doesn’t fit Conservative notions of what constitutes a genuine work ethic – this is the end of the line.

“This is the right thing to do,” argued Finley this week. “It is both fair and responsible. It will help Canadians who have worked hard and paid EI premiums for many years and who now find themselves in need of a hand up.”

This sounds like not-too-subtle Conservative code language for playing the blame game – implying that, apart from those “who have worked hard,” all other jobless workers haven’t worked hard enough to merit help.

And if this program is tailored for those “in need of a hand up” – a classic Conservative slogan – does that mean others are simply undeserving workers relegated to unseemly handouts? Apparently so, because when EI runs out, there is just welfare.

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