© Guardian photo by Teresa Wright
Egmont MP Gail Shea in her Charlottetown office
Like most Islanders fortunate enough to have full-time employment, I’m hoping I won’t have to draw on the safety net of employment insurance any time soon.
But if I must, I guess I should be pleased with an announcement made late last week by federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, the Island’s representative in the federal cabinet.
That’s because I’m a happy resident of the minister’s home riding — Egmont — where every worker who lives here stands to benefit from the announced changes.
Other Islanders weren’t so fortunate.
Starting in October, the Island will be split into two regions for calculating employment insurance. The Charlottetown region extends well outside city limits to the North Shore. The rest of the Island, including all of Egmont, makes up the second region.
Shea says the split offers a truer reflection of actual economic conditions in each region. It means that in Charlottetown, where the unemployment rate is several percentage points lower than rural areas, workers will have to work longer to qualify for EI benefits and they may be eligible for less money. But in rural areas outside the Charlottetown region, it’s the exact opposite. In those areas it will take fewer hours to qualify for more weeks of benefits.
At her news conference, Shea didn’t place any of the blame on her own government’s EI reforms introduced in 2012. She traced the origin of the problem back to a Liberal administration that, in 1996, she says failed to ensure that seasonal workers were protected. At that time, she said, the country was divided into 58 economic regions to determine how much workers would qualify for EI, but P.E.I. was left as one region. Provincial capitals in every other province were within urban economic regions.
And, true enough, the changes she announced last week will mean higher EI benefits for most rural claimants where the unemployment rate is traditionally higher. Unfortunately, those Islanders who live in the Charlottetown region won’t get those benefits. It’s hard to argue they’re any less deserving, particularly those in distinctly rural areas included in the region but who live well outside city limits. If nothing else, they should be included in the region outside Charlottetown.
But an even fairer solution might have been to fund a pilot program axed as part of the Harper government’s EI reforms. That pilot extended employment insurance benefits by five weeks for some workers regardless of where they lived in the province.
Shea has been accused of being politically opportunistic by looking after all workers in her own Egmont riding, and by excluding everyone in Liberal MP Sean Murphy’s Charlottetown riding, as well as others in parts of the Liberal-held ridings of Malpeque and Cardigan.
While it will no doubt be a plank in Shea’s own re-election bid in 2015, Tory candidates in the other three ridings — especially Charlottetown — likely won’t be highlighting the change in their campaigns.
But Hal Perry might. He’s the former Progressive Conservative MLA who felt so muzzled by his own party, he crossed the floor to join the Ghiz Liberals last fall. By jumping to the Liberals, he said he’d be able to freely speak out against Harper’s EI reforms, legislation that he said was hurting Islanders, particularly those in his own district.
Perry and Shea are both from Tignish and he said the announced change was at least a good start.
After he crossed the floor last fall, some people wondered if Perry might leave provincial politics and try to wrest Egmont away from Shea in the next federal election. Whatever the chances of that happening before Shea’s announcement were considerly less afterwards.
With the next federal election only 20 months away, the Conservatives may have solidified their hold on Egmont but, barring further changes to EI, votes may be tougher to secure is the other three ridings.
For most of the past year, the Tories have been running second to the Liberals in every opinion poll. That means they’ll need every seat they can get if they hope to return to government, possibly even a minority.
And that means there may yet be hope for another round of EI changes that will make the system fairer for claimants from one end of the province to the other.
Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.