OTTAWA - Liberals and Conservatives start negotiations Thursday aimed at determining whether the two parties can find enough common ground on employment insurance reform to avert a federal election this fall.

A six-member bipartisan panel - struck last month as part of an 11th-hour deal to stave off a summer election - is scheduled to hold its first meeting Thursday afternoon.

The panel is to address two issues: Liberal Leader Michael 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.

For the three Liberal members, a priority will be figuring out exactly what Harper meant when he talked about expanding the EI program.

Harper's remarks last month were widely taken to mean that the government wants 2.6 million self-employed Canadians to be able to opt into the EI program and be eligible for all benefits, including unemployment benefits.

But the prime minister was actually much more guarded, suggesting he wants only to extend maternity and parental benefits to the self-employed, as promised during last fall's election campaign.

"I can tell you one major thing we're looking at because it's a campaign commitment is that we will look at ways of expanding the EI program so that the self-employed can opt in to aspects of the program," Harper told a news conference only two days before striking the deal with Ignatieff to explore EI reforms.

The joint statement subsequently issued by Harper and Ignatieff is vaguely worded, stating only that the bipartisan panel will develop proposals to "allow self-employed Canadians to participate voluntarily in the employment insurance system." It doesn't specify whether the self-employed would be fully participating in all aspects of the EI program.

Jill Fairbrother, a spokesperson for Ignatieff, said the vague wording was deliberate.

"I think the intent was to leave the discussion open," she said.

Fairbrother said Liberals are hoping that the Conservative panel members will bring a specific proposal to the table Thursday. She declined to say whether Liberals favour full or partial extension of EI benefits to the self-employed.

"We are going in with an open mind and looking to see what the government has to propose."

However, Liberals are heading into the meeting with more definite views on the eligibility rules for EI, which vary widely across the country. Depending on local unemployment rates, a person must currently have worked anywhere from 420 to 700 hours before qualifying for jobless benefits.

Ignatieff has proposed setting a single national standard of 360 hours of work, which Harper has categorically rejected.

While Ignatieff has said he's open to other suggestions, Fairbrother said the 360-hour standard remains "clearly our starting point" in the negotiations.

"That's what we'd like to see."

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley will lead the Tory team during the negotiations. Her spokesman, Ryan Sparrow, refused to comment on Thursday's meeting.

"We're not going to be discussing the discussions of the working group in public."

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