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Question Period was a little vertigo inducing today: out of nowhere, Prime Minister Stephen Harper turned the tables on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's campaign to overhaul employment insurance.

Mr. Harper appears to have had quite enough of Mr. Ignatieff asking him almost daily to adopt the Liberal plan for a universal EI benefit of 360 weeks, which is a not so subtle way to present Liberals as champions of the tens of thousands of recently unemployed.

Oddly, the Prime Minister and other Conservatives have refrained from challenging the merits of the proposal. No longer.

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Mr. Harper told the Commons that Mr. Ignatieff's plan would undo changes made by Jean Chrétien. The Prime Minister risked future accusations of heartlessness by saying the Liberal proposal would allow people to claim a year's worth of benefits for a mere 45 days of work. Oh, and the plan would lead to higher payroll taxes, according to Mr. Harper.

If Mr. Ignatieff wants to wage war over EI, the Conservatives are "ready to take him on," the Prime Minister said.

Here's an abridged version of the exchange:

Mr. Ignatieff: "Mr. Speaker, the entire country is suffering the effects of a worsening economic crisis. Bankruptcies were up 60 per cent in March. Unemployment is up 83% in Alberta and 68 per cent in British Columbia. There are more people in Western Canada than anywhere else in the country who paid into EI but cannot get benefits. We have proposed a 360-hour national standard of eligibility for EI. Will the Prime Minister act on our proposals before the end of the parliamentary session?"

Mr. Harper: "Mr. Speaker, as you know, Canada has a very generous employment insurance system that we, in fact, enhanced in the most recent economic action plan. Over 80 per cent of those who are paying into it are receiving benefits."

"The fact of the matter is that this is very transparent. The Liberal Leader wants to change long-standing Liberal policy and we all know why he wants to do it. Having denounced the coalition, he now wants a proposal that he thinks can pull the coalition back together. It is simply another proposal to raise payroll taxes."

Mr. Ignatieff: "If I had their record on unemployment, I would want to change the subject too. However, this is not about my record. This is about their record. They are the government. I ask again: What does the government propose to do to fix the eligibility problems with EI? There are a lot of Canadians waiting for an answer."

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Mr.  Harper: "We all know the motivation of the Liberal Leader in making such a proposal. Let us be clear what the proposal is. The proposal is that a Canadian could work 45 days and collect employment insurance for a year. That would be the system in every region in perpetuity. That would do nothing for the economy or for the recession today. It is simply a completely unwise, un-thought-out proposal to raise payroll taxes to the roof in perpetuity for workers and small business."

Mr. Ignatieff: "I would like to have the Prime Minister say that to the 150,000 people who would be eligible under EI if our proposal went through…"

Mr. Harper : "… If that leader wants to go out and tell Canadians that he thinks they should pay higher payroll taxes so that people can work 45 days and then collect EI for a year, every single year in every single region of the country, we are ready to take him on."

Hard for Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton to compete with that.

They tried of course.

Mr. Duceppe called on the government to establish a market for carbon credit, asking Mr. Harper if he realized that that his lack of vision on the environment is "putting the brakes" on Quebec's efforts to bolster sustainable development, all to "protect the interests of his friends the oil producers."

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The NDP Leader urged the government to back General Motors pensioners, who are at risk of losing their benefits if the company files for bankruptcy.

"These workers, some of them in their seventies and eighties, have played by the rules, they worked all their lives and they are worried that they might even lose the modest that they have at the end of the day. Why will the Prime Minister not show some leadership here, step up to the plate and indicate that he and Canada will stand behind the workers' pensions?" Mr. Layton said.

Mr. Harper said he, the Obama administration and the Ontario government are working to ensure GM remains a viable company.

"The Leader of the NDP should know that ourselves and the government of Ontario, along of course with the government of the United States, have been working on the restructuring issues at General Motors for some time," Mr. Harper said. "Those discussions go on. Obviously what we are trying to do is ensure that we sustain a viable company in the long term and we continue to work on a solution to advance that objective."

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About the Author
Senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation

Kevin Carmichael is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Mumbai.Previously, he was Report on Business's correspondent in Washington. He has covered finance and economics for a decade, mostly as a reporter with Bloomberg News in Ottawa and Washington. A native of New Brunswick's Upper St. More

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