Thursday, June 18, 2009

On limited benefits

Aside from the Libs' illusory gains from their latest capitulation, they've also put forward one other claim to having influenced the Harper government. But the Libs may want to be careful what they take credit for:
Obviously, we’ll have to move from the 360 hour position to find consensus. And the Conservatives have already made a major move. In his presser today, Harper acknowledged the patchwork of differing regional standards has to go. That’s a significant concession from his past position of staunchly defending the system that has been achieved already by this Liberal initiated cooperative process.
Remember that until Ignatieff started looking for excuses to avoid standing up to the Cons, he and the Libs had joined forces with the NDP and the Bloc in pushing for a Canada-wide standard of 360 hours for EI eligibility. Which made for a strong strategic position, as it substantially improved the availability of support in some areas without weakening it anywhere.

Now, the Libs have apparently detached from that position in an effort to take credit for a national standard of some kind, wherever it ends up being set. But with the Cons having spent most of the spring thundering that a 360-hour standard would cause the fall of civilization, it seems highly unlikely that any final standard will anywhere near the 360-hour level. And the current minimum of 420 hours is close enough to that level that the Cons wouldn't seem likely to stomach it as a national standard either.

To the extent anybody has speculated about the likely outcome, 500 hours seems to be about the minimum the Cons would be willing to accept. And they might try to push the number even higher (560 as the current midpoint?), secure in the knowledge that the Libs are the ones who need to reach an agreement to try to make themselves appear relevant. After all, their fallback position of claiming Lib intransigence and continuing to shove their own policy down Ignatieff's throat seems to have worked just fine so far.

But let's be generous and assume that the Cons would agree to a 500-hour national standard. That would lower the threshold in most regions of the country. But for a large number of Canadian workers, it would actually make EI less accessible. In the highest-unemployment areas of the country. In the middle of a recession.

So who would stand to lose out? Here's the list of the current EI hour requirements - which includes more than a few regions which wouldn't figure to be happy to see standards relaxed in Calgary at their expense.

Take the region of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John's excluded), currently at a 420-hour standard. Does anybody think Danny Williams would be inclined to give a free pass to federal action which reduced EI availability?

All three territories are also at 420 hours. Likewise Windsor, Northern Ontario, Eastern Nova Scotia and Restigouche-Albert in New Brunswick. Prince Edward Island and North Western Quebec are at 455. Do they figure to be happy with less accessible EI?

In fact, at least one region in every province except Alberta is currently below 500 hours as its EI standard. But even there, Northern Alberta is less than a percentage-point rise in unemployment away - along with a substantial part of Ontario and B.C.'s southern interior. And if the economy takes another relatively small turn for the worse causing an extra 1.5-2 points of unemployment, the likes of Toronto and Montreal would similarly be worse off under a national standard.

As a result, the Libs' change in position from "improved coverage everywhere" to "the same coverage everywhere even if it's worse" seems likely to lead to significantly less accessibility for a substantial number of areas. But fortunately, there is some good news in the longer term if that's the result.

It was just this week that Darrell Dexter and the first NDP government in Atlantic Canada were sworn in. And while Dexter's handling of the Nova Scotia NDP certainly deserves plenty of credit for the breakthrough, the first step for the party was...public outrage at the Libs' callousness on EI, which propelled the NDP into official opposition status a decade ago while also allowing the federal party to establish an unprecedented Atlantic beachhead.

In sum, the Libs' continued pattern of painting themselves into ever more precarious corners looks likely to lead to a worse EI system in the short term. But it also presents a golden opportunity for the NDP to use an already-developed template to extend its national reach - raising the question of how long it'll take before the Libs are nostalgic for the strategic genius of Ignatieff's predecessor.

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