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Gordon Campbell at a press conference in Vancouver the day after winning his third term as the leader of the province. (RICHARD LAM)
Gordon Campbell at a press conference in Vancouver the day after winning his third term as the leader of the province. (RICHARD LAM)

B.C. Premier demands single EI standard Add to ...

The federal government needs to overhaul a "clearly discriminatory" employment insurance system to help the swelling ranks of the jobless in Western Canada, says British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell.

The Premier is adding his voice to the chorus pressing the federal government to rewrite the rulebook for employment insurance, and to create a single national standard for how long Canadians need to work before becoming eligible for payments. "Canadians are Canadians, and they should be treated equally," he told The Globe and Mail.

Right now, there are dramatic discrepancies in the EI system, with those in areas of historically low unemployment having to work more than twice as long to qualify for payments as those in regions with the highest levels of joblessness. That means it's much more likely for laid-off workers in such low-unemployment areas to fall short of qualifying for EI, even though a similar worker in a more disadvantaged area would receive payments.

Mr. Campbell is calling for an end to that long-standing policy, saying it is based on the "faulty premise" that workers in regions of relatively low unemployment can more easily find a new job. At the same time, Mr. Campbell says B.C. and other provinces should send cash to Ottawa to allow the federal government to make EI payments to recipients for as long as two years, long enough to cushion those households through the recession. That money would be the equivalent to what the province would have spent in welfare payments for individuals whose EI payments had run out.

He said he has not yet sounded out his fellow premiers on the proposals. However, both Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty have recently expressed their support for a single national standard. The distortions in the existing policy are most deeply felt in areas that have had a long stretch of low unemployment punctuated by a sudden upturn in joblessness - a description that applies to B.C., Alberta and Ontario.

Mr. Campbell said he plans to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the next two weeks, with an eye toward securing reforms in the EI system over the summer.

The proposals put Mr. Campbell in the rare position of being publicly opposed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government has rejected demands from the opposition Liberals to create a single - and lower - national standard for EI eligibility. "I don't try to pick fights," Mr. Campbell said, noting that he supports the measures unveiled by the federal Conservatives earlier this week to extend EI payments for long-tenured workers wanting to retrain.

A single standard would be expensive for the federal government. The federal Liberals estimate that their proposal would cost between $500-million and $1.4-billion, which would come from general revenues - at this point, a bigger deficit - rather than higher payroll taxes.

In an e-mailed statement, the Conservatives said the current EI system is fair, since the threshold for qualifying for payments falls as unemployment rises. The statement went on to criticize the "irresponsible" federal Liberal proposal, arguing such a move would result in significantly higher payroll taxes.

Mr. Campbell said he has no doubt the federal government would face higher costs under his proposal, although he suggested the expense could be reduced by having a more "affordable" eligibility period, meaning workers in areas of the country with the shortest eligibility periods might find it tougher to qualify for EI.

Finding a way to assist the hard-pressed areas of B.C. without adding to the provincial deficit is a key challenge for the newly re-elected Premier. Despite the deteriorating economy, Mr. Campbell has not given any hint that B.C. will plunge further into the red this year than the $495-million deficit forecast in the February budget.

With a report from Katherine O'Neill in Edmonton

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