Blogs & Comment

Ignatieff new leader; tackles EI

Did anyone miss the soap opera-like drama that engulfed the Liberal convention at the end of 2006? I sure did. Thanks to Bob Rae, who withdrew his candidacy for party leader at the end of ’08, this year’s three-day long conference was a snoozefest.
Still, last Saturday Michael Ignatieff did become the official leader of the opposition, and there’s already talk of him bringing down the government in the summer. The issue he’s charging ahead with, and threatening to force an election on, is employment insurance. He says if the government doesn’t change the EI system soon, he’ll have to do it himself.
There was some questionon whether or not he’d make any sort of policy announcement at the convention, so it’s interesting to see that he’s actually taking a strong stance on something. However, EI has to be one of the least controversial issues to glom onto.
The big problem with EI right now is that many recently laid off workers don’t qualify because they’ve worked less than the 420 hours in 52 weeks required to receive the government payments. According to the Canadian Labour Congress, about 43% of unemployed Canadians are collecting regular EI benefits.
The CLC has been pressing the government to improve EI by:

  • changing accessibility rules to provide regular EI benefits on the basis of 360 hours of work.
  • raising benefit levels to 60% of earnings calculated on a workers best 12 weeks.
  • increasing the period for which benefits can be collected to a maximum of 50 weeks.

Ignatieff agrees with the CLC’s first point he wants to ease the EI eligibility requirements to 360 hours worked. He also wants the Conservatives to launch an independent examination of the employment insurance system to, presumably, take stock of the CLC’s other suggestions.
It’s easy to see why Ignatieff has jumped on the EI bandwagon. It’s something that’s affecting more and more Canadians, in the grand scheme of things, improving employment insurance benefits seems like a relatively easy economic fix (and, he’s said, it would only be temporary) and the Conservatives have made it known that they’re not interested in reworking the process.
So, the Liberals will come out the good guys, and Ignatieff can be seen as the saviour of laid off Canucks. However, it’s not enough to really get people on the Liberal’s side. It’s completely plausible that Harper will reverse his opinion on EI and decide to make improvements, if only to placate Ignatieff. Plus, there are bigger issues weighing on Canadians taxes, economic recovery, gas prices and, perhaps most importantly, job retention and increased work opportunities.
Fixing EI is important, and it’s a good start for the new leader, but Canadians won’t be able to get a good sense of where Ignatieff will take the country unless he grabs at a meatier issue in the weeks ahead. (And hopefully sooner than later.)
Update: Good post by blogger Adam Radwanski, which says, “unless he’s completely lost his mind, this election talk will prove nothing more than a convenient narrative coming out of the Liberals’ convention.”
The post lays out why the Conservatives will reform EI and why they’d be nuts if they didn’t.