NATIONAL

CHASING A FAIR DEAL

A new coalition pushes the hottest hot button around—El reform

JOHN GEDDES May 22 2006
NATIONAL

CHASING A FAIR DEAL

A new coalition pushes the hottest hot button around—El reform

JOHN GEDDES May 22 2006

CHASING A FAIR DEAL

NATIONAL

A new coalition pushes the hottest hot button around—El reform

JOHN GEDDES

On the list of politically dangerous policy initiatives that Stephen Harper is not rushing to put on the front burner before the next election, reforming Employment Insurance must rank not far behind a Meech Lake-style bid to fix the Constitution. No federal strategist of any partisan stripe forgets what happened when Jean Chrétien tried to overhaul the program after becoming prime minister in 1993. As punishment for modestly scaling back benefits available to seasonal workers, Chrétien’s Liberals were slaughtered in the Atlantic provinces in the 1997 election, and cabinet kingpins David Dingwall and Doug Young were among those who lost their seats. Lesson learned: the Liberals later eased off on changes meant to discourage forestry and fishery workers from tapping El year after year—and no federal politician serious about power has raised the subject above the level of a whisper since.

But this week, an unusually wide-ranging alliance, representing everyone from hardnosed Bay Street economists to soft-hearted social policy advocates, plans to try to make it hard for Harper to ignore the issue entirely. The Toronto-based group, tentatively called the Fair Deal Coalition, will issue a report calling for a sweeping overhaul of federal and provincial support for adults who are out of work or toil for minimum wage. While their recommendations will try to make sense of the whole ragged patchwork of incomesupport programs, the push for serious El reform is the hottest hot button in the mix. Sources familiar with the report said it will call for turning the federal program into a true insurance plan, designed to kick in when workers unexpectedly lose their jobs, not as an annual supplement for those who know they will only work part of the year.

Seasonal El is as sensitive a subject in Quebec—where Harper hopes to win many of the new seats he needs in the next election to vault his Tories from minority to majority—as it is on the East Coast. So the report’s authors know they need to present their blueprint as one that could overcome stiff regional resistance. While they were keeping details secret last week, sources familiar with their proposals said they aim to make an El overhaul saleable by at the same time calling for Ottawa to substantially boost its funding for other incomesupport measures. A key goal is to raise the incomes of the working poor, especially in big cities. When he was Paul Martin’s finance minister last fall, Ralph Goodale summed up the problem when he noted that reductions in various forms of government assistance can cost an individual going back to work after a stint of unemployment 80 cents for every dollar earned in a new job.

There is little doubt the current system is always confusing and often counterproductive. But the Toronto coalition’s chances of jump-starting serious debate may rest less with its ideas than on the names behind them. Participants in the year-long preparation of the report ranged from Don Drummond, the influential former federal mandarin who is TD Financial Group’s chief economist, to Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, and Bob Rae, a prominent ex-premier when he joined the group, now a Liberal leadership hopeful. It’s a high-profile membership that straddles the usual ideological divides. But will a cautious PM with an eye on the next vote be in any mood to listen?