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Lowering EI qualifications an 'absurdity,' PM says Add to ...

Stephen Harper called opposition employment-insurance proposals an "absurdity," insisting they would allow those who work only a short time to collect benefits for far longer periods - prompting opponents to accuse him of reviving Reform Party rhetoric that suggests people try to lose jobs to collect EI.

Under pressure from opposition parties to lower the bar for EI so that those who lose their jobs after 360 hours of work, or about 10 weeks, will qualify, Mr. Harper gave the proposal a lengthy blast yesterday.

Mr. Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff have exchanged election threats over the issue, and while strategists on both sides don't really expect a spring election, Mr. Harper accused Mr. Ignatieff of using the issue to rally other parties to unseat the government.

"Mr. Ignatieff is trying to get the Bloc and the NDP back in a coalition with him," Mr. Harper said after making an infrastructure-funding announcement in Calgary.

"They are suggesting that what we should do is bring in an EI system where any Canadian, anywhere in the country, in perpetuity, could work 45 days and collect EI benefits for a period up to a year. This is an absurdity." The Prime Minister said that those changes would have "nothing to do with the real problems of this recession," insisting the challenge will be helping those unemployed for long periods and in need of training to find a job.

"When a long-term unemployed worker thinks that his EI premiums are going to go to that kind of EI system, I don't think that is something the people of Canada are going to accept," he said.

The opposition parties said Mr. Harper is wrong about their proposal: those who qualify after working for only a short period would get benefits for less time - 19 to 37 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate where they live.

The Liberal proposal would see those who work only 360 hours get 19 weeks of benefits: the NDP says they should get 37 weeks of EI.

"Learn your facts, Mr. Prime Minister, if you're going to start talking about the situation that some of the hardest-hit people in the recession are finding themselves in," NDP Leader Jack Layton said.

And Mr. Ignatieff issued a statement in which he accused Mr. Harper of trying to mislead Canadians about the Liberals' proposal. His party - unlike the NDP and the Bloc - wants the EI system expanded only as long as the recession lasts.

"Mr. Harper continues to deliberately misrepresent the Liberal position. He knows our plan is tied to the recession - not in perpetuity - and would not require increasing payroll premiums," he said in the statement.

Both Mr. Layton and Liberal human-resources critic Mike Savage said Mr. Harper is returning to what they called old Reform Party attitudes, "blaming the victim" by arguing that EI is generous and that making it easier to qualify would have people rushing to the unemployment rolls.

"He's slipping back to that old Reform Party view of the unemployed, that people would rather sit at home receiving a cheque - as paltry as it is - rather than work," Mr. Layton said.

"And I've got to tell you, in the midst of this recession, I am certainly not meeting people like that. I'm meeting people who desperately want to work."

In a separate interview, Mr. Savage echoed that critique, noting that the average EI cheque is $330 a week.

"People have moved on from that Reform view of things that says that EI is too generous or too lucrative. I think Canadians understand that people who are on EI need EI," he said.

"There's a lot of people now who would never have thought they would be without work, and all of a sudden they are."

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