OTTAWA - Human Resources Minister Diane Finley's language was designed to be reassuring and moderate.
Canada is facing "unprecedented skills shortages," she told a Thursday news conference, and the government wants to help the unemployed to "find jobs and keep them."
Employment Insurance (EI) is this country's single largest "labour market program," she emphasized, and the government only wants to make it work better -- for those out of work, for employers and, as usual, for "the economy."
Mind you, we still do not know the details as to exactly what changes the government will bring about in this program. We'll only know that when the government announces those new regulations Finance Minister Flaherty alluded to. And that will only happen after Bill C-38, the massive "Trojan Horse" Budget Bill -- as the NDP has taken to calling it -- has passed.
Will the elected Parliament of Canada get to consider those new EI regulations? When the Minister was asked, she, in essence, said no.
When regulations are published in the Official Gazette there is, it seems, some sort of opportunity for the public to comment. That will be the extent of public consultations on changes to this "single largest labour market program" -- a program to which most workers and employers contribute.
Targeting repeat users
The Minister wants to make it "crystal clear" that the changes to EI will not require workers to accept work outside their geographic area or field of work.
The changes will, however, effectively punish those who are "repeat users" of EI.
If you have had three or more claims and received EI for 60 weeks or more out of the last five years, look out. The new rules will prescribe some tough love for you, which could include taking a job as much as an hour's drive away, and doing work that is a bit far from what you have normally done.
The Minister evoked the prospect of unemployed fish plant workers taking jobs with McDonald's in the off-season. How McDonald's might deal with them quitting in order to return to the fish plant was left unexplained.
"We want to make sure," the Minister explained, "that the MacDonalds of this world do not have to import foreign workers."
Double talk on temporary foreign workers
In fact, the question of foreign workers was central to Finley's presentation. Too many jobs, she argued, are going to temporary foreign workers when there are qualified Canadians sitting at home taking EI.
She wants Canadians to know that making sure Canadians, not foreigners, get the jobs that are available is one of the main reasons for these changes (still not precisely spelled out) to EI.
But the NDP's Finance Critic Peggy Nash points out that there is complete cognitive dissonance here.
The government has just recently loosened the rules governing employers who want to import foreign workers. It has shortened the approval period from three months to two weeks, and it will now allow employers to pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than the prevailing rate for Canadian workers.
Minister will have unlimited power to make new rules without consulting Parliament or Canadians
As Nash sees it, the government is not trying to help the unemployed connect to the labour market; it is making scapegoats out of them.
The NDP's critic happily commends one aspect of Finley's announcement on EI: the government's plan to provide the unemployed with more information on available jobs, on a more frequent basis.
However, Nash points out that there are six unemployed Canadians for each available job, and the government has not proposed anything constructive in the way of retraining or skills upgrading for the unemployed.
In addition, the NDP Opposition underscores the fact that the massive Budget legislation will give the Human Resources Minister untrammelled and unilateral powers to change the EI rules, or create new ones, at any time. The new regulations the Minister described in vague and general terms on Thursday could be quite different six months from now.
As Nash sees it, the purpose of Thursday's announcement is not really to inform the public of the government's intentions with regard to EI.
If the government were interested in engaging with the Canadian public it would table the EI changes as separate legislation and allow Parliament to deal with it thoroughly. That would include committee hearings, and witnesses. We'll have none of that, however. EI changes will remain a small piece of the "Trojan Horse" Bill C-38.
Are some Conservatives getting nervous about EI changes?
Nash suspects that what Finley is really trying to do is calm the waters for anxious Conservative Members across the country who have obviously been getting an earful of anger from their constituents.
Just ask British Columbia MP David Wilks. He told a group of constituents that, like them, he is not happy with the Budget Bill -- certainly not with the bundling together of so many disparate legislative measures.
In fact, he intimated that he might be willing to vote against Bill C-38 if he were to be joined by 13 other Conservatives. But, he cautioned, such a gesture on his part would be futile if he tried it alone.
This is a money bill, Wilks tried to explain to his constituents, meaning it is subject to what is called a "three line whipped" vote. The consequences for a Party MP who defies the Party on such a vote are -- well, Wilks asked: "Would you like to have an independent as a Member of Parliament?"
Judging from the video available on Youtube, those constituents aren't too worried about what kind of Member of Parliament they have. They're more worried about Bill C-38 and all it entails, including changes to EI.
The harsh truth from the mouths of your allies
Finley's sortie Thursday on EI might be calculated to reassure a restive public that the government is not really trying to hide radical and extreme measures in a 400-plus page piece of legislation. Nothing to see here, folks; it is all just business as usual.
But sometimes when you don't want to be too frank about your true intentions your friends and allies can have a way of outing you. That's what the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation (CTF) did to Finley and the Conservative government a few hours after the EI announcement.
In expressing its support for the EI changes the CTF doesn't beat around the bush or try to sugar coat the message. The headline on Federation's news release says: "New EI rules strike a blow for working Canadian taxpayers against habitual pogey collectors."
"The new EI rules strike a blow for hard-working Canadian taxpayers," the CTF' s Federal Director is quoted as saying, "Against habitual pogey collectors who have been enjoying part-time work with other people's money for far too long."
And Thomas continues with a direct message to unemployed Canadians:
"If you've been collecting pogey more than one year in the past five, maybe it's time to get some training, find a different line of work, or move to where the jobs are."
Is that just telling it like it is, or, as the NDP's Nash put it: "demonizing the unemployed?"
The Commons Finance Committee continues consideration of the "Trojan Horse" Budget Bill next week, while the NDP has just wrapped up its own series of hearings across the country.
Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.
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