Documents show Liberals warned of political perils from launching EI review

OTTAWA — The Liberals were warned on the eve of an election year about the political consequences of following through on a four-year-old campaign promise to review the employment insurance system, newly released documents show.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had asked one of his senior ministers to conduct a sweeping review of the social safety net program to come up with ways to adapt EI to changing labour force demands.

The program hasn’t had a review in more than two decades, during which time it has become more complex while the number of people qualifying for benefits has dropped.

Documents provided to Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos late last year warned about how a detailed review could drum up “significant expectations” on the Liberals to enact very costly changes to the program, tailored to each group’s priorities.

The documents, dated December 2018 and obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, said reconciling and managing “different and sometimes conflicting priorities” from stakeholder groups would be challenging, given that some “may be very costly” or “not in line with the program’s role and objectives.”

Although the Liberals didn’t launch a review as promised, Duclos’ office said the government is always looking for ways to improve the EI system, pointing to changes to parental leave, new family caregiver benefits, easing eligibility for new or returning workers, and a skills training credit — all done over four successive budgets.

Still, the government has heard growing concerns that more people could find themselves unable to access benefits, straining their finances and the economy over time, due to disruptive technology shifts in the labour market. The rise of the so-called ”gig economy,” officials wrote to Duclos, means that “gaps in EI coverage could widen over time.”

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