Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives are planning to unveil an unemployment insurance reform package in the coming session of Parliament, in effect undermining one of the Liberal party's justifications for a fall election.
A bipartisan working group on EI failed to agree to changes to the program over the summer, with the Liberals accusing the Tories of not bringing any proposals to the table. Last week, when the Liberals announced their intention of defeating the government and said they would no longer attend the working group, Conservative committee member Diane Finley chastised them for walking away from the discussions.
The move to introduce their own EI plan suggests the Harper Conservatives, gearing up for an election campaign, want to shift the blame onto the opposition for failing to help the growing ranks of Canada's unemployed.
Mrs. Finley, Human Resources and Skills Development Minister, said the Tory EI reforms would be implemented whether the government was defeated or not.
"We're contemplating that possibility as we put this program together and stay tuned," Mrs. Finley said yesterday.
The reforms will be targeted at helping long-tenured workers who have lost their jobs during the recession, the minister said, adding there will be improvements to job training programs. This may mean extending benefits for those needing more time to acquire new job skills.
The minister also suggested that further expansion of the reduced work week and work sharing programs was also being examined. And so was the idea of introducing more generous maternity and parental leave benefits especially for the self-employed.
However, Mrs. Finley refused to say how much the reform would cost and whether extending benefits to those who no longer qualify was also being considered.
The Minister accused Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff of being more concerned with his own political future by wanting to go into an election this fall rather then working for the welfare of the unemployed.
"Canadians don't want an election and neither do we. We believe we should be working on the recovery. We've been fighting the recession. Michael Ignatieff is fighting the recovery," Mrs. Finley said.
The EI working group was actually spearheaded by Mr. Ignatieff, and agreed to by Mr. Harper, in June to stave off an election.
Yesterday Marlene Jennings, one of the two Liberal MPs on the committee, accused the government of acting in bad faith by now tabling proposals that could easily have been debated by the EI reform panel.
"This just makes it clear that they were working on something…and never brought it to the table," Ms. Jennings said.
The Liberals, along with the other opposition parties, were proposing changes that would lower the threshold to qualify for EI, improve benefits to hundreds of thousands of workers and eliminate the two-week waiting period.
"The Minister is announcing that she is going to make an announcement without putting any meat around it. That's typical of the Conservatives," Ms. Jennings said. "Why didn't they bring this to the table before?"
During yesterday's traditional Labour Day parade in Toronto, where 27,000 people marched, union leaders urged MPs to make reforming EI their main priority.
"This government needs to wake up to the terrible hardship that so many Canadian families are facing due to job losses," said Peggy Nash, assistant to Canadian Auto Workers union president Ken Lewenza.
"Already far too many Canadians have exhausted their EI benefits, not to mention those who never qualified for EI because of outdated requirements."