OTTAWA – The bickering has intensified between Conservatives and Liberals on Employment Insurance, after only one bipartisan meeting to examine possible improvements to the system.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley came out swinging Wednesday against Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff as she left a Tory caucus meeting.
She claimed that Ignatieff was unwilling to budge from his proposal to make 360 hours of work the national eligibility standard for collecting EI benefits, at least until the economy recovers.
“Let me be clear, let me be very clear, that working nine weeks and collecting EI for the rest of the year is something straight out of academic fantasy land,” Finely said, a shot at Ignatieff’s time as a professor at Harvard.
“Mr. Ignatieff is going to have to come forward with specific, detailed, financially responsible ideas that won’t raise taxes for Canadians who can least afford it at this time.”
The two sides have been sniping since last Thursday when a working group composed of members from both parties met for the first time to explore EI reforms.
Ignatieff’s team has not said that the 360-hour threshold is their bottom-line in the negotiations. Instead, they’ve called it their “entry point.”
“What I know is that what is right for Canada is a national standard for EI,” Ignatieff told CTV News Wednesday.
“We’ll set the level at what the country can afford and what is prudent. But 150,000 Canadians right now cannot get any access to EI because of how it is administered and unemployment will surge through the rest of this year.”
Still, the Liberal leader admitted to frustration with the Conservatives and said it’s not an “unreasonable extrapolation” that his MPs might be forced to topple the minority government in the fall.
“We’ve sat with these guys for six weeks and we have not had a single proposal on helping the self-employed, we have not had a serious discussion and so let’s get serious.”
The EI working group was formed in the dying days of the spring parliamentary session. Ignatieff had insisted that the Conservatives address access to the EI system before he would support the government in a confidence vote.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to work with the Liberals on the issue, and hinted that his party was interested in extending benefits to the self-employed. The agreement between the two men bought a temporary ceasefire in the Commons.
Since that time, confusion has arisen over whether Harper wants to extend full benefits under the EI program to the self-employed or only maternity and parental benefits.