The lack of thoughtfulness about EI Reform

“Some employers are expressing outrage at changes to employment insurance, while the government is rushing to defend the new system as reasonable and helpful.

Much of the criticism is coming from employers who rely on seasonal workers. The new system will force seasonal workers, in the off-season, to look for and accept work they are qualified for instead of relying on EI to bridge the gap.

“I’ve been talking to the guys in the industry and we’re, excuse my language, going to be royally screwed by this,” said Andrew Nichols, who runs the Fall River landscaping company Property Works.”

  • EI changes spur outrage and accolades, May 25, 2012 – 9:10pm By PAUL McLEOD, (The Halifax Chronicle Herald)

The Conservative government says it’s open to changes on Employment Insurance as some provinces warn Ottawa’s reforms fail to consider factors such as aging populations.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty acknowledged Friday that EI is “a very sensitive subject” and promised that any concerns about the new policies will be taken into account before they are put in place

  • As provinces balk at EI changes, Flaherty says let’s talk, by BILL CURRY, Globe and Mail, Published Friday, May. 25, 2012 8:55PM EDT

While, I am a partisan and a Liberal, I want to congratulate governments on good policy choices. I can admit that I disagreed with the GST and the Free Trade Agreement. Furthermore, I can admit that I had an argument with a Liberal MP about the need for cuts in 1994 and 1995. However, today, I can admit that I was wrong. Good policy sometimes is unexpected.

Therefore in criticizing the Harper Government’s’ changes to the Employment Insurance Programme, I need to be equally open minded. For, the Employment Insurance system has had problems for years. Under the Mulroney Government, it was called Unemployment Insurance. They were the first government to reduce the scope of the programme. They reduced the range of eligible workers and reduced the benefits. When the Liberals came to power, they did the same.

Barbara Cameron, writing for the Social Rights Accountability Project (SRAP), – a five year research initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – indicated that:

“By the time the Liberals assumed office, changes by the previous government to Employment Insurance had reduced the percentage of the unemployed actually receiving EI benefits to 57 percent, down from 74 percent in 1987. Under Liberal government changes, the coverage rate declined to 39 percent by 2001. The change to basing eligibility on hours worked rather than on weeks worked hit women particularly hard and resulted in a steadily increasing gender gap in coverage.”

So if the Conservative Government were simply reducing benefits, they might have been able to argue that there is a continuity of policy. However, this is not the case. The Conservatives have done much more than just reduce benefits. They have brought forth legislation that was not thought out and they have not consulted with Canadians. This government has tried to redraw the meaning of Employment Insurance and they have done so without thought to the policy implications or consultation.

It seems thought that I am not alone. The Harper Conservatives have managed to upset at least two provincial Premiers and demonized a region. Premier David Alward is already on record as saying that he’s worried proposed changes to Employment Insurance will hurt seasonal industries in the province, such as fishing, forestry and tourism ( David Alward worried about EI changes, CBC News, Posted: May 25, 2012 1:49 PM AT).

While Kathy Dunderdale, the Tory Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, “noted that many of her province’s frequent EI users are older fishery workers that do not have the skills required to land some of the province’s new resource jobs offered by employers such as Vale”.

What is remarkable to me is the lack of thought that went into this legislation. For example, I heard Human Resources Minister Diane Finley’s announcement on Friday. She was proud that the Tories were going to bring out a daily alert system. Her press release noted that ““Our Government wants to make Employment Insurance work better for Canadians,” said Minister Finley. “Today, we are announcing improvements to EI that will help Canadians who want to work, get back to work.” … Canadians receiving EI benefits will now receive comprehensive job postings on a daily basis from multiple sources.”

When I heard that I was shocked. For, how can the federal government provided daily updates on jobs and other matters? It took a while to dawn on me, but it eventually did. The Federal Government wants to use daily alerts using the Internet and modern communication tools. Ms. Finley indicated as much when she was responding to questions about reforming the appeal process. In her words, some of the appeals would be taken care of by tele-conference or tele-commuting.  This sounds like a great idea in principle. However, think about it: if someone is unemployed they probably don’t have a lot of resources. A single person or a family would have to cut unnecessary expenses. I have had a friend or two in those circumstances. One of the first things that the unemployed cut was their technology and telecommunications budgets. That’s right; the unemployed either reduced or eliminated their internet, telephone and cable bills. Furthermore, the Unemployed usually don’t have computers and the like. Therefore, most EI recipients will not be able to access the daily updates.

A potential reader of this blog might have a bright idea: the Unemployed could use the Internet at the library. Well, let us not forget that the Harper Government cut public web access funding to libraries and community centres in April of 2012. (Ottawa cuts CAP public web access funding: Program offers internet access at libraries, community centres, CBC News, Last Updated: Apr 7, 2012 12:59 PM ET)

So let us put these facts together. Some of the recent changes, by this Harper Conservative Government, are meant to address the problems of frequent claims. For example, according to the Globe and Mail, in Nova Scotia, 56 per cent of claimants maybe frequent claimants. This is 20% above the national average which sits at 36 per cent. While on the other hand, Eric Stackhouse (chairman of the Nova Scotia Community Access Programme Association) noted that the cut to Community Access Programme Funding (CAP) would affect 11 CAP networks with 209 sites. So where will the unemployed go now to get the internet to find their jobs.

This is a real concern. For most low income people have trouble getting internet access. According to Statistics Canada’s 2010 Internet Use Survey, 79 per cent of Canadian households had an internet connection. While, 97 per cent of households in the top income quartile had internet access at home, only 54 per cent of households in the lowest quartile had it. Given that the lower quartile tops out at $30,000, one can assume that people on Employment Insurance are not likely to have any internet service at all. This gets me back to my point: the Harper Government’s lack of foresight in this area of government reform.

Now since we are in a Parliamentary Democracy, we might have expected Parliament to review this bill. However, the Parliamentary Conservative Majority seems determined not to study the Omnibus Budget. So we will not get improvements to this bill. Nor will we likely see changes. Parliament, because of its Conservative Majority, will likely abdicate the responsibility of supervising the government. Therefore, where do we get our transparency, accountability and public input on the bill?

If a Parliamentary Committee cannot review the bill, a Senatorial Committee could. But the question is, are Conservative Senators brave enough to think for themselves. If the Harper Government felt that a fair review could not be done in Parliament, they could have looked for outside confirmation. It did so in its early years to examine the Afghanistan Mission. It could do so again through a Blue Ribbon Panel or a Royal Commission. But I doubt that that will happen. For the Conservative Government has not even shown the slightest bit of ability to communicate its intentions with the public. They did not produce a White Paper on the issue. Nor did they talk to Provincial Premiers to give them a heads up. While it is true that the Conservatives did not have talk to anyone, the simple truth is that those costs that the federal government does not bare will have to be borne by other levels of government, the public sector or the private one. So why not be transparent about the effects of your policy.

Through all of these words, we have been left with a scenario: a government who does not want to communicate its intentions. We, as a society, are left with a government that is detached from the very public that the government wishes to serve and lead. To me, it sounds like a government from another time. It sounds like the federal government did not learn the lessons of Responsible Government. This government sounds like one that was more reminiscent of a time when the Château Clique and the Family Compact ruled our part of the world. So what should a Liberal do? Over the last fifty posts or so, I have come to define Liberalism as the act of taking care of the “Other”. In this particular case, we have at least two others. On one side, we have taxpayers. On the other side, we have participants in an economic model which is not working as efficiently as possible. Furthermore, we have the interests of the future unemployed.  Each group needs something differently.

For example, taxpayers want to help their fellow citizens for two reasons: self-interest and national pride.

As Canadians, we are happy to help each other. Helping your fellow citizen is engrained and encoded into our national DNA. Why else would we have so many collective programmes? From our social safety net to our food bank, we care about the other. Therefore, we have no problems setting aside some money for our fellow man.

However, if we are truthful, we can admit that self-interest also has a role to play. Many of us have a story about the system. It could be because we have used it or a friend of ours has.  So we know that the system is there for us when we need it. Consequently, we are more than willing to put some money aside for our future and “unfortunate selves”. Or on the negative side of the self-interest column, we think about those who become desperate when they are looking for work. The Employment Insurance system ensures that desperation does not lead to crime. Therefore, it is in our self-interest as taxpayers to help out their fellow citizens.

With that being said, taxpayers do not want to overpay for this protection. Like life or health insurance, they want a solution that they may be able to use. However, that system should be both efficient and effective. Therefore, from time to time, there will need to be changes. Sometimes, the programme will be added to and sometimes cuts will happen. Either way, the system must work.

So at the end of the day, our system of government should emphasis various principles; principles which should lead to the balancing of the interests of various stakeholders. It is a system that John A. Macdonald, George Brown and George-Étienne Cartier called for. Such a system would require openness in Parliament, so that the interests of all stakeholders can be established. Such a system would call for transparency and accountability to ensure that the goals could be met and that they could be tested. From times to time, issues should come to fore, in an open Parliament to ensure that governments’ are both aware of the programmes performance and can be held account for its failures.

Through open Federal Parliament, Governments can be clear as to the goals that they are trying to reach. Those goals can be tested by Government and Opposition Members, or by Third Parties of the right or of the left. In this way, we can accomplish goals together as a society. In fact, in an open system we can study the outcomes to death. All of this means that we need to be honest with each other and gain a better country. This balancing act requires a working Parliament. Therefore, it is essential that Parliament be open and transparent, effective and accountable, honest and balanced. Today, this is clearly not the case.

David Wilks, MP for Kootenay-Columbia is just one example. One day he said he might oppose his government budget, for some very good reasons. They next day he backtracked saying  “I wish to clarify my position with regard to Bill C-38, the Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity Act,” Wilks said. “I support this bill, and the jobs and growth measures that it will bring for Canadians in Kootenay-Columbia and right across the country.” (B.C. Tory MP backs down on opposition to Bill C-38, Peter O’Neil, Vancouver Sun, May 24, 2012)

As a Liberal, I don’t think I am asking for a lot. Just for Clarity let me provide a list: Less mindless opposition, more critical thinking, accountability, transparency, objective policy decisions, openness, forethought and public input. All of this comes from having a Parliament that is open. All of this comes from a respect for Institutions.

The Tories claim that they believe in these things. This is why, for example, they argue in favour of a

Triple “E” senate. If we have such a Senate – a Senate that was equal, elected and effective – one would see that this proposal would be studied. Provinces and Constituents would demand it. Four Provinces (ie. New Brunswick, PEI, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland) have already given their disapproval in the most public of ways; while Ontario and Quebec are expected to make a fuss sometime soon.

With all this being said, no action of yet. It is a shame that that same Government advocating for an elected Senate will not allow for an effective House of Commons. Maybe that is all we need. An Open and Effective House of Commons that can debate ideas that are good for all Canadians. I know that the idea is revolutionary, but maybe it is time for a “revolution”. Imagine that a House of Commons with debate.

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2 thoughts on “The lack of thoughtfulness about EI Reform

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