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NDP Leader Jack Layton questions the government during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday.
NDP Leader Jack Layton questions the government during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday.

Brian Topp

Honourable EI reform plus Victorian cant Add to ...

Yesterday's employment insurance reform package was greeted cautiously by New Democrat critic Paul Dewar, for good reason.

On the one hand, improving benefits for what the Conservatives have defined as "long-term employees" speaks to Canada's key current economic problem -- brutal job cuts in industrial and resource industries, scything the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Canadians previously employed in good long-term jobs.

On the other, there is an element of Victorian cant in this government's policy of dividing the victims of the Great Recession into the deserving and undeserving unemployed.

To the first point: it is an interesting exercise to ask where the approximately $1-billion the Conservatives are proposing to inject into EI through these carefully-targeted proposals might go.

If I understood yesterday's announcement correctly, enhanced benefits -- providing up to five months in additional income -- seem well-targeted to address the needs of communities with large automotive, steel, and other manufacturing industries. These communities, brutally hit in the recession, are populated by many thousands of unionized working families who had been employed in plants for their entire careers.

Cities like Windsor, London, Hamilton and Oshawa.

The proposals also appear to be a good fit for forest and resource communities.

Such as the ones found in Northern New Brunswick, Northern Ontario, the boreal forest ridings across the northern prairie provinces, and in the interior of British Columbia.

The New Democratic caucus in Parliament understand the economic tragedies affecting working families in these communities well, since many are represented by New Democrat MPs.

To the second point, about Victorian cant: A growing share of work in our economy is in no-security, no-benefits, precarious, often part-time jobs. There is little prospect of accumulating seven to ten years of "long-term" employment in this kind of work.

These are the first and worst hit during hard times.

And these are the people the Mr. Harper's government considers unworthy of help in the package tabled yesterday.

That is unworthy.

That said, you have to take your progress where you can get it when you're in the socialism business these days (to use one of the Prime Minister's favourite words).

It has been a long, long time since any progress has been made on EI.

Employment insurance was shamelessly looted by the previous Liberal government, which helped itself to over $50-billion in undistributed EI insurance contributions in a pretence of "balancing" the federal budget. Basically, for many Canadians, EI contributions were converted into a regressive deficit poll tax (much of the rest of the deficit bill was passed onto provincial governments).

In the process EI benefits were mercilessly slashed.

And EI "active measures", notably training and apprenticeships, were foolishly dismantled and devolved into a mess of provincial and local programs (a bilateral deal with Quebec would have served Canada much better).

The political context being what it is, it would now seem to fall to the NDP caucus to decide whether these proposals are worth working with. A decision that will probably determine whether or not the Conservative government remains in office this fall.

The NDP committed yesterday to reading the Conservative proposals carefully and to considering them on their merits.

While we're waiting on that decision, this is therefore not a bad moment to reflect on the fact that this week's events build the case that the NDP has in Jack Layton a more politically-experienced, wily and thoughtful leader than his competition.

Unlike the red and blue team leaders, Mr. Layton has been in public life most of his adult life.

He learned his trade during many years of consensus- and coalition-building on Toronto City Council and as President of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities.

He was mentored in the work by his father, who sat in Parliament as a Conservative MP and served as Brian Mulroney's caucus whip (and whatever else you can say about Mr. Mulroney's record, he was a superb practitioner of the elementary political arts that seem to evade Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff).

Layton has fought in three federal general elections and has served a five-year federal Leadership apprenticeship in minority federal Parliaments -- and has become an increasingly effective national leader, as his party's central role in Parliament today demonstrates.

Further, in my view the New Democrat caucus elected in 2008 is at least as strong as the Liberal caucus more than twice its size, and is arguably head and shoulders above the Conservative one. There are (I can report, having looked into the matter closely last fall) at least as many MPs capable of serving as strong federal Ministers in the NDP caucus as there are in the red caucus. As for the blues, the deafening PMO-enforced silence of blue team members (cabinet and caucus) speaks for itself.

All this to say that it is not a bad thing that the biggest decision before Parliament this year likely sits this week in the hands of the New Democrat team.

Making responsible decisions on the key issues of the day is something they do increasingly well. A fact Canadians will hopefully reflect on when they next ask themselves what alternative there might be to red-blue conservative government.

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