OTTAWA – The Harper government sent confusing signals Tuesday about coming changes to employment insurance rules, declaring in favour of a hardline approach while indicating the new measures will be moderate.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley told the House of Commons there’s no plan to force jobless workers receiving EI benefits to take any job available, as the finance minister seemed to suggest the day before.
“Canadians will be expected to take jobs appropriate to their skill level in their area,” she said.
Later, she suggested unemployed workers would not be cut off from EI benefits for refusing jobs significantly below their previous earnings level.
That is decidedly different from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s comments on Monday, when he said he was brought up to believe that “any job is a good job” and that the current EI rules are a disincentive to work.
The minister added to the confusion in a session with reporters Tuesday, saying there is no light between himself and the human resource minister responsible for drafting the new regulations.
“Minister Finley believes in the value of work just as I do,” he said. “I graduated from Princeton, I was driving a cab in Toronto working my way through law school. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Finley’s softer stance on the budget changes announced in March, though, does not clear up the issue.
Canadians won’t know exactly what the government has in mind until new regulations on defining “suitable employment” are unveiled in the next few months.
And that should be a concern to all Canadians, interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said, pointing out that the government is taking away a definition in law and replacing it with “nothing.”
Unsuitable work is defined in part as “not in the claimant’s usual occupation and is either at a lower rate of earnings or on conditions less favourable than … the conditions that the claimant usually obtained.”
Finley agreed with Flaherty that one of the problems facing the economy is labour shortages, even though the current jobless rate of 7.3 per cent is more than a full point higher than prior to the 2008 recession.
In response to a question in the Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared to back his finance minister, saying the government expects labour shortages will be a serious concern to the economy in the years to come.
“Let’s face it, Canada is facing unprecedented shortages of labour and skills, so we need to help Canadians who are unemployed get back to work quickly.”
Reaction from Conservative MPs in the Commons suggested many would take a hard line on job seekers.
MPs three times interrupted a question from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair which used the finance minister’s statement that there is no such thing as a “bad job,” prompting an admonishment from Speaker Andrew Scheer.
But the EI confusion was indicative of what the opposition parties find untenable about being asked to vote on a budget bill that includes sweeping changes on everything from EI to Old Age Security to environmental reviews.
Liberal finance critic Scott Brison could not get Flaherty to provide an estimate on how much Ottawa would save on OAS benefits by raising the age of eligibility from 65 to 67 years starting in 2023.
The minister said the government’s chief actuary will provide an estimate in a few months once the bill is passed.
Brison and NDP finance critic Penny Nash, who had little success in getting definitive answers from Flaherty during a committee meeting, said it was “unacceptable” to ask MPs to vote on a budget bill without knowing its implications.
“These are people’s lives we’re talking about,” said Brison.
“We know that the plan will be sustainable,” responded Flaherty.
In other testimony to House and Senate committees Tuesday, the finance minister expanded on his view that oil sands development in Alberta benefits all Canadians.
Referring to previous statements by the NDP leader that the oil sands are helping create a two-speed economy in Canada by inflating the dollar and harming central Canada’s manufacturing base, Flaherty repeated that he thought the comments were divisive and wrong.
He said Statistics Canada data shows that trade from the Atlantic provinces to Alberta grew 14.8 per cent on average from 1998 to 2008. Trade flows from Ontario and Quebec grew by 6.2 per cent and 7.3 per cent respectively per year over the same period.
Future estimates project that the oil sands industry is expected to purchase $63 billion in goods and services from companies in Ontario over the next 25 years, he added.
“The rising tide lifts all boats,” he said. “This is all good for all of us as Canadians from coast to coast to coast.”