Tories mulling EI benefits extension

OTTAWA — The Harper government appears poised to extend the duration of employment insurance benefits, a potentially election-averting move aimed at shaming the Liberals and wooing the NDP.

Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Diane Finley speaks with the media about the EI working group outside the House of Commons on Parliament Hill.

OTTAWA — The Harper government appears poised to extend the duration of employment insurance benefits, a potentially election-averting move aimed at shaming the Liberals and wooing the NDP.

But while the NDP has made extension of EI one of its key conditions for possibly propping up the minority Tories, New Democrats are skeptical the government will produce anything they can support.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley confirmed Monday that measures will be introduced soon after Parliament resumes Sept. 14 to help long-tenured workers whose jobless benefits are running out.

“This is our priority, no question,” she said in an interview.

“This is a very special group who started getting laid off in great numbers early this year and we want to make sure that they do have the supports they need to help them with their job search.”

Finley indicated that the measures won’t necessarily involve legislation, which would require a lengthy approval process that would be interrupted if Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff follows through on his threat to topple the minority Tory government at the earliest opportunity.

“There are a number of ways it could be done,” she said.

“Our goal is to make sure that, in spite of Michael Ignatieff, these hard-working people get the support they need to get them back to work.”

In Quebec, Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn told a television interviewer that the plan involves some legislative changes but also regulatory measures “that could kick in immediately even if we’re tossed into an election campaign.”

Finley would not disclose any details. But she said help for long-tenured workers was “one of many ideas” tabled over the summer by Conservative members of a bipartisan working group on EI reform.

“I was very disappointed when Michael Ignatieff showed absolutely no interest in this.”

However, Liberals, who walked out of the working group last week, said the government never tabled any detailed proposal on any facet of EI. Nor, they maintained, did Finley ever directly mention help for long-tenured workers.

According to Liberal MP Mike Savage, the only hint they got of the government’s plan was a very general list of “discussion points” presented by Finley at the last meeting in August. The only point which would apply to long-tenured workers involved extending the duration of EI benefits.

“If they have a plan now, why didn’t they have it in June, July or August?” Savage said.

He suggested that the Tories don’t really care about the unemployed but are strictly engaged in machinations to embarrass the Liberals and court the support of the NDP.

“Whatever they’re doing is highly political and that’s entirely in character with how they’ve treated the process,” Savage said.

Rick Boychuk, spokesman for NDP Leader Jack Layton, questioned whether New Democrats can trust the Tories after the government spent the spring and summer balking at any changes to EI. He called the government’s approach “disrespectful” to the unemployed.

“They did nothing all summer long and now they’re suggesting they’re willing to offer some help?”

Still, Boychuk would not rule out NDP support for the EI measures.

“We’ll see to what extent the Harper Conservatives actually do reach out to other parties to find or craft a proposal that makes sense to everybody.”

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