Really, Senator Mike? Are civil servants really responsible for changes to employment insurance? What a groundbreaking new theory in political science.
The changes to seasonal benefits and eligibility for EI, in effect on Jan. 6, are certain to disrupt life for thousands of Maritimers. They are significant changes thatwill make it much harder for contract workers and those in seasonal industries to qualify for benefits.
Billed by the government as a great improvement and boon to workers, the changes will also make it more difficult for employers in tourism, fisheries and agriculture to retain workers. That, in turn, will speed up the exodus of working age people from the Maritimes to the West.
But who’s behind it? I’d always thought that in our system major government reforms, brilliant or boondoggle, spring from the fount of the federal cabinet. The cabinet does take advice from the bureaucracy, but its members make the decisions. And cabinets are 100-per-cent political content. They tell the bureaucrats what do to.
But on this EI thing, that whole concept’s been turned on its head, or at least it has in the head of P.E.I. Senator Mike Duffy.
Hon. Senator Duffy, a proud Conservative for many years and one who has done much to promote the interests of his party, has a startling new theory about how policies become practice.
Hon. Senator Duffy suggested to the CBC the other day that the EI changes aren’t political decisions at all but the concoction of industrious federal servants, who should not be criticized for doing their jobs.
Of course, no one actually is blaming civil servants, but that didn’t slow down the senator.
“The EI system isn’t run by politicians, it’s run by bureaucrats,” Senator Duffy told the CBC. And fair enough. Bureaucrats run the machinery of government, that’s what they do. You can’t have cabinet ministers or, God forbid, senators filling out forms or fielding phone calls from the taxpaying public.
The people running the EI system, Hon. Senator Duffy continued with grave admonishment, are “civil servants, who are our neighbours, who are professional and responsible.”
Given that, anyone who suggests the EI changes are causing political problems for the Conservatives hurls a grievous insult at those hardworking neighbours of ours in the public service.
I suspect a lot of those civil servants are struggling to explain the new EI rules to their own neighbours these days. It’s not likely many of them are claiming credit for the changes.
Now in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve known Duffy since my days as a wire service reporter on Parliament Hill. He couldn’t have been more kind, connecting me to the Maritime mafia that, back then, actually mattered in Ottawa.
And I can also understand how after all those years covering the Hill, the now-senator could have become bored of journalism and sought to get more involved in national affairs. He saw that the Conservatives were ascendant and he linked his star to theirs.
In for a penny, in for a pound I suppose. Not only did Duffy get aboard the big blue bandwagon, but once appointed to the red chamber after years of friendly coverage of the Tories at CTV, he became one of its most pugnacious defenders.
So when it was suggested that changes to the EI system are hurting the Conservative party’s chances on the Island, Hon. Senator Duffy rose to the occasion. Not only is EI hale and hearty, he said, but Ottawa’s magnanimous treatment of the Island produces a myriad of financial supports like equalization and health-care funding.
All that and more. Ottawa is putting upwards of $500 million into the Island economy to develop new businesses. In the Duffy version, that’s $10 million a week, 52 weeks a year, of pure gravy.
But maybe Duffy’s real message is that the EI changes won’t end up meaning much at all, that they are mere political window-dressing. He says the civil servants making the decisions about EI will be “sensitive to Islanders.”
Does that mean they’ll have the power to sidestep their political orders, the ones from the federal cabinet? Even Senator Duffy doesn’t believe that.
Dan Leger is a Halifax-based writer and commentator. Twitter: @Dantheeditor.