© Guardian photo by Brian McInnis
HALIFAX - It's not often that federal programs achieve two goals in a single stroke. Usually, federal programs, indeed most government programs on every level, struggle just to meet even their most basic objectives.
That’s because too often, governments pass measures more for political reasons than for reasons of good government. Think gun registry: the Liberals saw it as a wedge issue to win support in anti-gun urban Canada, the Conservatives closed it down to lure rural voters.
It’s not clear whether either program made much sense in terms of public policy, but it was good politics for both parties.
But on one policy, the Conservative government in Ottawa is hitting its groove. The employment insurance changes imposed over the past year or so have made progress on two important fronts: they have reduced the number of Canadians collecting claims while driving labour to where the government wants it.
In practical terms, fewer people in eastern Canada and somewhat paradoxically, British Columbia are now drawing benefits. There can't be any real doubt that's what the Conservative government set out to do when it tightened eligibility requirements and raised the bar on existing claims.
The latest figures from Statistics Canada show a decline in the number of people collecting EI pretty much right across the country. In Prince Edward Island, it’s a 16 per cent drop. In Nova Scotia, it’s 12 per cent, in Newfoundland and Labrador 11 per and in New Brunswick nine per cent.
The Canadian average is six per cent fewer people drawing EI, so it’s not hard to see how hard the changes are hitting in Atlantic Canada. Unemployed workers are being squeezed out of the EI system more than twice as fast on the Island and in Nova Scotia and well above the national average in New Brunswick and Newfoundland.
To be fair, it’s not only Atlantic Canada feeling the pinch. British Columbia saw EI eligibility drop by 11.5 per cent and in Manitoba, it was 12 per cent. So the pain is being spread around, it’s just that it hurts more here in the East, where it’s far harder to find a job.
Cutting people off EI and making it harder for the newly-unemployed to collect is a real bonus for the federal government. Since EI isn’t insurance but a vast tax on work, it can collect the maximum from every worker and employer while hacking back on the payout side.
No doubt the changes are winning few friends for the federal Conservatives. Maritimers tend to see EI as part of the economy, rightly or wrongly, and messing with it messes with lives.
That’s partly why Tory MLA Hal Perry jumped ship last week and joined the Ghiz Liberals. Perry said the party is feeling the public backlash over EI cuts but is too afraid of the Harper government to fight back.
PC Leader Steven Myers denied his caucus had been prevented from speaking out on the EI cuts. He rather lamely suggested that he had written letters and met with Gail Shea and even the prime minister to talk over the issue.
Nothing whatsoever has come out of those letters and meetings, it would appear.
The other benefit from the EI changes, from the federal Conservative point of view, is that it is driving labour into the Alberta oil patch.
Workers, especially those with skills, are deserting the Maritimes for Alberta and to a lesser extent Saskatchewan and Ontario. Labour is expensive in Alberta, cutting into corporate profits for companies even outside the oil patch.
And it’s a bit ironic, since many western-based critics of the EI system say that it makes it too easy for seasonal industries to stay afloat because they’re not obliged to provide year-round jobs.
But if cheaper labour migrates from Atlantic Canada into the Alberta economy and helps to keep down labour costs there, isn’t that a kind of indirect subsidy to businesses in that region?
Federal policy supports the mushrooming Alberta economy, which is great for Alberta and great for the Conservatives. Small wonder the party polls so high in that region.
The larger question is, does it benefit all Canadians or just those in a favoured region on the right side of national politics?
- Dan Leger is a Halifax-based writer and commentator. Twitter: @Dantheeditor.