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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff pauses during Question Period in the House of Commons on Sept. 22, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff pauses during Question Period in the House of Commons on Sept. 22, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ignatieff changes his mind on EI bill Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff is reversing his support for a wide range of enhancements to Employment Insurance benefits, saying they are too expensive and are no longer required.

The Liberal Leader attempted to provoke a federal election around this time last year over some of the very reforms that are coming to a vote Wednesday in the House of Commons, but he now says he no longer supports them.

"This bill is not fiscally responsible," he said of a Bloc Québécois private-member's bill that comes to a vote Wednesday evening. The Liberals and the NDP had supported the bill at second reading and in committee, but Mr. Ignatieff said it will be a free vote for his MPs.

The legislation, introduced by Bloc MP Yves Lessard, would reduce the qualifying period for EI from the current minimum of 420 hours down to 360 hours. It would also increase the weekly earnings from 55 per cent to 60 per cent of past earnings and increase the length of time that benefits could be collected.

Mr. Ignatieff's comments strongly suggest the Liberals will defeat the legislation, given that he described the bill as being dead on arrival and a complete waste of time. He did not say definitively, however, that the Liberals will vote to ensure the bill is defeated.

The Liberal Leader argued his support for such measures last year was a product of the recession.

"We supported measures when there was an economic crisis. We were in the middle of full crisis with a much higher unemployment rate. The situation has changed," Mr. Ignatieff said in French. "The [Bloc]has put a bunch of stuff in a bag that if you take it together, is not responsible. But it's a private-member's bill. The members of my caucus will vote as they wish."

The Liberals are under pressure from groups like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to change position on the bill.

Mr. Ignatieff made the comments to reporters after a closed-door meeting with his MPs on Parliament Hill. Just minutes earlier, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley emerged from the Conservative caucus meeting taking place across the hall to criticize the opposition parties for supporting what she described as a 45-day work week.

"I've heard from a number of hard working Canadians who tell me that they find that irresponsible and offensive," she said. Ms. Finley added that the Bloc bill would cost almost $7-billion a year in higher EI premiums.

NDP Leader Jack Layton criticized Mr. Ignatieff for switching his position on EI reform, arguing that there are still many unemployed Canadians in need of help.

"The unemployed are not out of this crisis yet," Mr. Layton said. "Maybe the banks think we're out of the recession, but the people out of work certainly don't."

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