Politics may push Harper to fix EI

TheStar.com – Opinion – Politics may push Harper to fix EI
May 11, 2009.   Carol Goar

Changing Stephen Harper’s mind with facts, figures and logic seldom works.

The Prime Minister clung to his belief that Canada could avoid a recession, when all the economic indicators suggested otherwise.

He cut the goods and services tax when virtually every economist said costs would outweigh the benefits.

He still refuses to repatriate Omar Khadr, the young Canadian held at Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, despite legal documents casting doubt on his guilt; repeated calls from lawyers and human rights activists to allow him a fair trial in Canada; and a ruling from a Federal Court judge directing the government to ask the U.S. to return Khadr to Canada.

Appeals to Harper’s conscience also tend to be futile.

He turned a deaf ear to worldwide entreaties to open the 16th International AIDS conference, which Canada hosted in 2006. Neither pleas from humanitarian groups nor requests from heads of state moved him.

But there is one signal he has heeded in the past: polls showing he is out of step with public opinion on an issue that elicits strong voter response.

That is why he did an about-face on deficit spending last November.

That is why he set a 2011 end-date for the Afghanistan mission last year.

Using this calculus, there is a reasonable chance the Prime Minister will move – though probably not as far as the opposition parties would like – on employment insurance.

* Since the government tabled its budget in January, 160,000 more Canadians have lost their jobs. Almost every voter knows someone who’s been laid off or cut loose. It’s no longer just blue-collar workers. It’s people who work in banks, brokerage firms, television studios and oil companies. It’s no longer confined to parts of the country that the Conservatives consider marginal electoral territory. It is centred in Ontario, where they must make inroads to win the next election.

* As job losses have climbed, people have discovered that EI is a much thinner and spottier financial cushion than they’d assumed. They see family members and neighbours failing to get benefits – although they paid premiums – because they weren’t in the workforce long enough, were forced to reduce their hours or went through a series of layoffs. They see friends who’ve lost their livelihood depleting their retirement savings and taking survival jobs.

* The political cost of inaction is mounting. It’s not just the opposition parties that are demanding reform. Bankers and business leaders are beginning to speak out. Christine Elliott, who is running for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party (and is married to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty) has said the province should opt out of the EI program if Ottawa doesn’t improve coverage for Ontarians.

* As public anxiety has risen, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s position has hardened. In January, he registered his disappointment with the inadequate jobless relief in the budget. In March, he voted for the “spirit” of a New Democratic motion to make EI more generous and equitable. Last week, he gave Harper a June deadline to meet two explicit demands: As a temporary measure, lower the eligibility threshold for EI benefits to 360 hours of paid work for all Canadians. (It now varies from 420 to 700 hours, depending on the regional unemployment rate). To fix the systemic problems in EI, commission an independent review to identify what’s wrong and recommend changes.

Harper doesn’t usually yield to pressure. But when the political stakes are high and the scent of danger is in the air, he finds ways to be flexible.

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