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EI reform does not warrant an election Add to ...

The enthusiasm of Michael Ignatieff's Liberals for employment insurance reform may have begun with sincere concern for the well-being of unemployed Canadians. But as the opposition ramps up talk of a spring election, it carries with it an increasingly strong whiff of opportunism. In lieu of major differences with the government when it comes to economic stewardship, the Liberals seem to be trying to manufacture a defining issue.

The Liberals are not wrong that, during this recession, the regional discrepancies in EI eligibility are unnecessary and unfair. The system rests upon the notion that it is easier to re-enter the work force in some areas of the country than in others; those living in regions with typically low unemployment must work more hours than those in poorer areas in order to qualify. Now that jobs are scarce even in normally prosperous places, these discrepancies seem arbitrary.

The Liberals' proposed eligibility requirement of 360 hours worked over 12 months may be too generous, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper has charged, considering that the lowest eligibility rate in the country is 420 hours. But the idea of a national standard - at least until effects of the recession are no longer being felt - is reasonable.

It is not, however, a matter at the heart of the country's response to its vast economic challenges. It is surely a tiny minority of newly unemployed Canadians who fall just short of the required hours in order to receive benefits. Most have lost jobs they held for much longer, and thus stand to benefit more from the additional skills training outlined yesterday - albeit in a rehash of this year's budget - by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.

Whichever mode of EI reform the government opts for, it is a small part of its recession response. That rests primarily on billions upon billions of dollars in infrastructure spending and tax cuts laid out in the budget. There are flaws in that plan, notably the emphasis on "shovel-ready" projects with too little regard for their long-term benefit. But it is a plan that the Liberals endorsed, and in the four months since, they have yet to give a coherent or comprehensive summary of what they would do differently.

Even Dwight Duncan, the Liberal Finance Minister of Ontario, who has lobbied hard for easier EI access for Ontarians, seemed yesterday to recognize that there is little appetite for a spring election on the matter. Federal Liberals should come to the same conclusion, even if the Conservatives do not offer some manner of EI compromise.

It would be one thing to give Canadians an opportunity to choose between significantly different visions for how to manage the country back to prosperity. It would be quite another to yet again destabilize the country, at a time when a strong hand is desperately needed, so that the opposition can attempt to exploit a relatively marginal policy difference.

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