GATINEAU, Que. - Bipartisan negotiations on employment insurance reform got off to a rocky start Thursday, with the Liberal leader slamming what he called the Conservative government's indifference to the plight of Canada's jobless.
Michael Ignatieff issued the criticism just as three Liberals and three Conservatives - members of an EI reform panel struck last month in an 11th-hour deal to avert a summer election - were sitting down for their first meeting.
"We note that the government has taken five weeks to get its act together on this. We were ready to go at the end of June with this committee," Ignatieff said.
"It's a sign I'm not sure that they give any real importance to employment insurance reform, but we certainly do."
The panel began its discussions - the outcome of which could yet determine whether the country is plunged into an election this fall - just as the Bank of Canada essentially declared the recession is over.
Ignatieff welcomed the signs of economic recovery but insisted a more generous EI system remains crucial. He predicted that high unemployment - pegged at 8.6 per cent last month - will continue to plague the country for several more years.
"We welcome green shoots in the economy but it's going to be a tough, long, hard slog to get this country back to full employment," he said, underscoring his point by touring a recession-ravaged paper mill owned by Kruger Products, which has lost 1,000 jobs across Quebec.
"We think Canadians are going to need employment insurance through '09, through 2010, through 2011."
The panel is to explore two issues: Ignatieff's demand for a national standard for qualifying for EI and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's promise to extend EI benefits to self-employed workers.
Ignatieff said Liberals "believe very strongly" that it's crucial to end the patchwork of variable eligibility rules across the country.
Depending on local unemployment rates, a person must currently have worked from 420 to 700 hours before qualifying for EI benefits. Ignatieff has proposed a single national standard of 360 hours of work, which Harper has categorically rejected.
Ignatieff indicated Thursday he's willing to compromise - at least a bit.
"I've always indicated a certain flexibility on 360 but not that much," Ignatieff said.
"So we're going to have some tough discussions with the government."
Ignatieff also signalled tough negotiations on Harper's proposal to extend EI benefits to the self-employed.
Harper's comments on the subject last month were widely taken to mean that he wants 2.6 million self-employed Canadians to be full participants in the EI program, eligible for all benefits. Ignatieff indicated that was his impression as well.
However, the prime minister actually worded his remarks carefully, talking about his "campaign commitment" to extend "aspects" of EI to the self-employed. And during the campaign he promised to extend only maternity and parental benefits to the self-employed.
Government and PMO officials have refused to clarify precisely what Harper is now proposing and did not provide details to Liberals on the panel during Thursday's meeting.
If it turns out Harper is proposing only maternity and parental benefits for self-employed Canadians, Ignatieff said, "then he's backing away from what he told us at the end of June. He was looking for a substantial program that would bring the self-employed in."
Ignatieff allowed that fully including the self-employed in EI raises a host of "complexities," such as "what counts as self-employed, how do they count their hours, do they lay themselves off - all that stuff is a real difficulty."
Nevertheless he noted: "They are the largest category of Canadians who are facing this economic storm without protection, without employment insurance protections.
"So we think, if we're going to be a compassionate society and if we want to get stimulus in, that would be a good place to go."
After meeting for more than four hours, Liberal panel member Mike Savage said the results were "mixed" and inconclusive.
He said Liberal members were disappointed that their Conservative counterparts, headed by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, did not offer any details about the government's plan for extending EI to self-employed workers.
"We're hoping we'll see something more substantial" at the next meeting on Aug. 6, he said.
On eligibility rules, Savage said the Tories agreed to have departmental officials produce a statistical analysis of moving to a 360-hour national standard.
Ryan Sparrow, a spokesman for Finley, dismissed Ignatieff's accusation of Tory footdragging. He said "scheduling concessions" had to be made by both sides before the panel could start work.
"We hope that administrative differences will not get in the way of both parties working together for the best interests of Canadians," he said.
The panel has agreed to meet again Aug. 6, 13 and 20 and Savage said he expects it will be clear by the end of August whether both sides can agree on the necessary EI reforms.
The panel is to report to Parliament by Sept. 28. Liberals have said they'll be prepared to bring down the government in a confidence vote if there is not sufficient movement to enhance EI.
New Democrat MP Malcolm Allen said neither the Liberals nor the Tories are genuinely committed to reforming a system in which he said less than 40 per cent of workers who pay into the program are actually eligible for EI benefits if they lose their jobs.
He dismissed the negotiations as "just a political exercise for Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff to save face."