EI 'reform' and Harper's election strategy in Atlantic Canada

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The triumphal Harper plan -- trash the public sector and all its (Liberal) works, and let the oilsands economy pick up the slack while transforming Canada into a right-wing energy superpower -- is on the skids. The polls are reflecting it in the prime minister's and his party's slipping public confidence ratings. The Harper showpiece, the budget, is full of non-specifics and shoes-yet-to-drop and merely raises new questions. The real point now, I suggest, is how much damage is yet to be done by this government before its number is finally up in a couple of years.

Environmental and fishery laws, our international reputation, the integrity of Parliament, relations with the provinces, and more, have been junked; scientists have been gagged, information snuffed under a pall of non-transparency, and so forth. Virtually every week, for years now, there's been a new outrage; they have become so routine that they're hardly reported. In passing, here's this week's: the gagging of government archivists and librarians, who now need political clearance to talk to public groups because of a "duty of loyalty" to the Harper government. Talks on how to preserve archival material as dangerous disloyalty! This is the paranoia of dictators.

What I'm getting to, however, is EI "reform," an issue that's not going away, that's destructive in the way it's being prosecuted, especially in Atlantic Canada, and is arguably one of the more acute of those wanton Harper attacks. Far from "reform," this looks like a frontal assault meant to all but wreck the system, and in the meantime saddle the provinces with still more costs in the form of welfare.

As of now, by some calculations, only four out of 10 people who pay into the system can actually collect, thanks to its accumulated dysfunction. If so, the present changes, in my estimation, will drop that to 30 or even 20 per cent. Much has been said about having to take any job within an hour's drive and the inspectors going around sniffing out fraud. More to the point is the closure of the regional EI offices and the demand that everything be done by computer, including being on standby as Ottawa emails twice a day on job openings "in your area." Meanwhile, the conditions to be met (competency evaluations, attending job fairs, networking and others) are geared to big city conditions.

If there's an actual intelligence behind all this, it knows that many of the more marginal rural users of EI don't have computers (besides, Ottawa closed the program of public computers at libraries and elsewhere), tend to be older and have few choices, and many will simply be pushed out of the system by sheer bureaucratic density, some going to welfare.

Keep in mind that these changes, like everything else in the Harpersphere, were never debated. They were part of last year's budget omnibus bill, a violation of democratic process in itself. The argument that EI is a support for seasonal industries, not unlike subsidies for the auto or oil industries, never entered the calculation.

The political consequences of this and many other things would lead one to assume the Conservatives would suffer a wipeout in Atlantic Canada at the next election, similar to what happened to the Liberals in 1997. It crossed my mind that this has been calculated by Harper: that he doesn't need either Atlantic Canada or Quebec to win next time, as long as he can hang on to the monied and the insecure amid the Ontario middle class, in addition to his Western base.

But no, he'll try to hang on to what he's got in Atlantic Canada. In fact, in my riding of West Nova, the electoral machine is in gear even now. Here, the rap against Harper isn't just EI. Sudden and illogical "reforms" -- that is, privatizations -- of the lobster licensing system have been sprung, which fishermen suspect is a scheme to harass them to pave the way for corporate fishing. And the extension of the start of the Old Age Security pensions to 67 has caused grumbling, as has the insulting way it was announced. Harper was speaking to the billionaires' club in Davos, Switzerland, over a year ago when he let this drop. He was bragging about being the world's best fiscal manager, and more or less said: I'll prove it to you by kicking my old people in the butt.

With that stacked up, you'd think any old donkey on any ticket would win against Conservative Greg Kerr next time. But Kerr is seen virtually weekly handing out cheques to service clubs, fire departments, for municipal enhancements and so on. And so the game is on, and it's the Harper strategy: tear apart public services to save money, but spend freely to buy targeted votes. If we buy it, we'll get what we deserve -- a warning not just for one riding, but as the smoke clears, for the country as well.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was first published in The Chronicle Herald.

Photo: michael_swan/Flickr

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