Tories not doing enough to fix EI program

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Mon Sep 27 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has left the door open a crack.

He hasn’t offered to fix Canada’s broken employment insurance system or postpone next January’s premium hike.

But he has acknowledged that, 14 months into the economic recovery, too many Canadians remain out of work.

“It’s a very serious concern,” he told CBC Radio last week.

Without specifying what he would do, Flaherty indicated the government would continue to help the unemployed. “It’s going to be a tough road back.”

That vague commitment falls short of what business, labour, all three federal opposition parties and several provincial premiers are calling for. But it’s a start.

The next logical step would be for the government to consult the opposition parties about how to boost job creation and how to ensure employment insurance (EI) helps workers get back on their feet, without jeopardizing economic growth.

But logic has little weight in today’s hyper-partisan Parliament. MPs lurch from one showdown to the next — over the long-gun registry, the census, jail-building and the threat of boatloads of migrants — heedless of the priorities of Canadians.

Liberal finance critic Scott Brison says he’d be willing to talk to Flaherty about EI, but he hasn’t been asked and doubts he will be. “It’s tough to work constructively if you don’t have a constructive partner.”

New Democratic Party EI critic Yvon Godin is likewise open to participating in a discussion of EI reform. But he’s not expecting one.

Both opposition critics have specific proposals they’d like to put on the table.

To put their recommendations in perspective, here is a brief outline of what’s wrong with EI:

Approximately 40 per cent of the jobless don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. Among the excluded: part-time workers who can’t accumulate enough to meet Ottawa’s eligibility threshold, the self-employed, temporary workers, contract workers and the long-term unemployed.

People who don’t qualify for EI benefits are shut out of Ottawa’s job training and skills upgrading programs.

All workers pay identical premiums, but EI claimants receive starkly different benefits, depending on their regional unemployment rate.

Employment insurance is no longer an economic stabilizer. For decades, it acted as a cushion in hard times. But five years ago, the Liberals changed the rules. They legislated that the EI account must break-even each year. So now, premiums go up during job droughts and down when workers can support themselves.

To correct this “perverse result,” Brison proposes the EI account be self-balancing over a multi-year period (he won’t specify how long). He also recommends that young workers, whose unemployment rate is almost twice the national average, pay lower premiums.

Godin thinks a claimant’s EI benefits should be based on his or her 14 best weeks of work, not the last 26 weeks, which are often a period of reduced hours and intermittent layoffs. He also suggests workers recovering from a serious illness to be entitled to a year of EI benefits, not just 15 weeks.

These ideas are reasonable. There appears to be a basis for discussion.

Why isn’t it happening?

Maybe it’s because Flaherty accuses the opposition parties of being a “reckless coalition” poised to send the economy into a dangerous downward spiral by triggering an election.

Maybe it’s because Brison insists the Liberals are blameless in the EI financing mess.

Maybe it’s because Godin demands, as a precondition, that the government give back the $57 billion (already-spent EI surplus) the Liberals “stole” from workers.

It would take political maturity for the Conservatives to reach out in this highly charged atmosphere.

But minority governments have done it the past — for the country’s sake.

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