EI: Liberal by design, Harper's downfall?

Lana
Lana Payne
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It is a strange quirk of fate. Stephen Harper must be thinking so.

In the 1990s, the Liberals - then led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his right-hand man, Finance Minister Paul Martin - revamped Canada's social safety net. A key piece of that reform included wholesale changes to the country's unemployment insurance system.

By 1996, the Liberals introduced the Employment Insurance Act. The legislation did a lot more than change the name of the program from unemployment to employment insurance.

It is a strange quirk of fate. Stephen Harper must be thinking so.

In the 1990s, the Liberals - then led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his right-hand man, Finance Minister Paul Martin - revamped Canada's social safety net. A key piece of that reform included wholesale changes to the country's unemployment insurance system.

By 1996, the Liberals introduced the Employment Insurance Act. The legislation did a lot more than change the name of the program from unemployment to employment insurance.

For the unfortunate people who needed the program - those who had lost their jobs, the sick, or new parents - it became a lot tougher to qualify for smaller benefits.

There was a huge outcry by the labour movement and other social justice advocates at the time. The Liberals did not get away unscathed. In Atlantic Canada, for example, in the 1997 federal election, the Liberals lost 20 MPs, including two cabinet ministers - David Dingwall and Doug Young. They were wiped out in Nova Scotia and suffered setbacks in both Newfoundland and New Brunswick. Since 1997 and this stunning electoral reminder, there have been many improvements to the EI program - bought about mostly because of a sustained campaign by the labour movement across the country, but mainly in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.

But that did not stop the Liberals - and the Conservatives after them - from collecting billions and billions of dollars in EI premiums (moneys paid by working Canadians and their employers) for everything but EI benefits or training. Instead, more than $50 billion collected in EI premiums was used to pay off the deficit, pay down on the debt and hand out corporate tax cuts.

And now this program crafted by the Liberals may very well be what brings down Stephen Harper and his Conservative government. How's that for irony?

Harper and his government have been stubbornly resisting calls to fix EI so it meets the needs of people during this recession. In fact, no issue has enjoyed such profound consensus including from the labour movement, premiers, CEOs and bank economists.

The Liberals and their newly-crowned leader Michael Ignatieff have upped the ante, pushing for EI changes and calling on the Tories to fix EI or "maybe" face an election.

It takes an incredible amount of nerve to even pull off what the Liberals are attempting to do here. But somehow they manage to keep a straight face. After all, their leader can claim he wasn't even in Canada when Chretien and Martin changed the program in the 1990s.

Reforming unemployment insurance was part and parcel of a larger agenda of deregulation - an economic experiment that has failed badly for people and communities.

The theory was that unemployment insurance benefits were too generous and kept people from taking low-paying jobs; wages that were kept low because governments refused to increase minimum wages. Low minimum wages were also part of that economic experiment.

A similar sentiment has been repeated recently by Diane Finley, the Conservative federal minister responsible for the unemployed, who said her government did not want to make the program so "lucrative" that people would stay home rather than look for a job - living high on the hog on less than $400 a week.

That line has been repeated many times by federal Conservatives - including every month when the job losses are released by Statistics Canada. Nearly 400,000 Canadians have been laid off since October and there are tens of thousands more who will likely get pink slips during the current recession.

On May 4, Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn reiterated his government's official line when he was quoted in a Toronto Star article as saying the Conservatives weren't interested in any of the improvements to EI being suggested by the opposition parties, and that his government had already done enough by extending the maximum duration to 50 weeks from the previous 45.

The next day, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty seemed to be singing a different tune. He said his government was willing to listen to what the opposition parties were saying about EI. Maybe he and the revenue minister should get their stories straight and include Diane Finley on the conference call.

The end result is we may just get a few improvements to EI - whether it's because Harper wants to hold onto his job for a little longer or because the Liberals have joined the NDP and the Bloc and made this their issue. No doubt the Liberals have been under tremendous pressure from unions, the unemployed, some premiers and even bank economists.

The ultimate irony for Harper is failing to fix EI may be the very thing that ends his power grab - brought down by the very people who gave us employment insurance in the first place. Politics is indeed a strange occupation.

Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by e-mail at lanapayne@nl.rogers.com. Her column returns May 23.

Organizations: Employment Insurance, Conservatives, Statistics Canada Toronto Star NDP Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland New Brunswick Quebec

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Recent comments

  • Carol
    July 02, 2010 - 13:35

    Hey Bones it seems the only substance you have is the Blue Cool Aid Danny has you drink every day. Get a friggin life young man. Lana Pane is against everyone thats not NDP. Your against everyone thats not a Danny worshiper like you.

  • Gerald
    July 02, 2010 - 13:26

    No, Iggy wasn't in this country when changes were made to the EI system. Why, Iggy wasn't ever in this country when anything negative (or positive, for that matter) was done; he was just never in the country.
    Didn't Harper increase by 5 weeks the amount of time that recipients could collect?
    And, don't think that the Harper's Government will be brought down soon because he now has new dancing partners. Layton and Ducieppe are scared that the Government will be accidentally defeated and they will lose their seats to iggy. They will make sure that that doesn't happen.

  • Richard
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    One of the other reasons the EI fund went into surplus was that over 2 million new jobs were created in Canada over the same period of time. In other words, there were hundreds of thousands more paying into the fund, and hundreds of thousands fewer recipients. That's a statistic that never seems to creep into any of your columns. Surely someone tuned into Labour issues would have noticed such a thing over the span of a decade.

  • Bones
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    Susan from NL what about your own mindless, biased political banter ? Maybe you can write something of substance, no ? Thought so.

  • Susan
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    Must be nice to live in your world Lana. You have all the answers to everything just like the leader of the Federal NDP NO Brain Layton. Then again neither one of you will ever be in a position where you can do much harm with your mindless blabber.

  • Marilyn
    July 02, 2010 - 13:08

    Usual well thought out words of wisdom from the Bone head Bones. Oh well thats what we have all come to expect. Perhaps a relative of the great Lana.

  • wayne
    July 02, 2010 - 13:08

    the extension of 5 weeks we hear about. from what i hear it's not in place yet? am i wrong on this one? please let me know.

  • Carol
    July 01, 2010 - 20:25

    Hey Bones it seems the only substance you have is the Blue Cool Aid Danny has you drink every day. Get a friggin life young man. Lana Pane is against everyone thats not NDP. Your against everyone thats not a Danny worshiper like you.

  • Gerald
    July 01, 2010 - 20:13

    No, Iggy wasn't in this country when changes were made to the EI system. Why, Iggy wasn't ever in this country when anything negative (or positive, for that matter) was done; he was just never in the country.
    Didn't Harper increase by 5 weeks the amount of time that recipients could collect?
    And, don't think that the Harper's Government will be brought down soon because he now has new dancing partners. Layton and Ducieppe are scared that the Government will be accidentally defeated and they will lose their seats to iggy. They will make sure that that doesn't happen.

  • Richard
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    One of the other reasons the EI fund went into surplus was that over 2 million new jobs were created in Canada over the same period of time. In other words, there were hundreds of thousands more paying into the fund, and hundreds of thousands fewer recipients. That's a statistic that never seems to creep into any of your columns. Surely someone tuned into Labour issues would have noticed such a thing over the span of a decade.

  • Bones
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    Susan from NL what about your own mindless, biased political banter ? Maybe you can write something of substance, no ? Thought so.

  • Susan
    July 01, 2010 - 19:46

    Must be nice to live in your world Lana. You have all the answers to everything just like the leader of the Federal NDP NO Brain Layton. Then again neither one of you will ever be in a position where you can do much harm with your mindless blabber.

  • Marilyn
    July 01, 2010 - 19:43

    Usual well thought out words of wisdom from the Bone head Bones. Oh well thats what we have all come to expect. Perhaps a relative of the great Lana.

  • wayne
    July 01, 2010 - 19:43

    the extension of 5 weeks we hear about. from what i hear it's not in place yet? am i wrong on this one? please let me know.