A labour economist, a bureaucrat and a cabinet minister walk into a room ... - Liveblogging the EI reform bill at HUMA

It’s no blue-ribbon panel, but at least they’ll let us watch, right? Join ITQ as she liveblogs the gang over at Human Resources, where they’re about to kick off what could be a short and sweet — well, short, at least — review of the government’s proposal to tweak the employment insurance system to provide a few more weeks of coverage for long-term workers. On the witness list today is the minister herself, as well as Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti, United Steelworkers economist Erin Weir and Rosalie Washington.

Check back at 3:30 pm for all the action.

3:20:30 PM
Good afternoon, committeephiles, and welcome to what is, ITQ has just been informed, the *second* meeting on the EI bill. The minister is here, surrounded by the usual throng of serious-faced officials, as is her erstwhile fellow blue-ribbon panelist Mike Savage, who will be leading the charge for the Liberals. Also up for the red team: Maria Minna and Raymond Folco; Yves Lessard and Josee Beaudoin are here for the Bloc Quebecois, and Yves Godin – of course – for the NDP. As for the government — well, just as ITQ was about to do a nameplate check, the chair gaveled down, so that may have to wait for a minute or two so she doesn’t miss a second of the minister’s scintillating testimony.

3:30:57 PM
Okay, maybe “scintillating” isn’t quite the right word. Honestly, all she really has to do is recap the press release, but she has ten minutes to do so, and ITQ has every confidence that she’ll not only rise to the occasion, but work in at least one reference to the Economic Action! Plan, and possibly a warning to the opposition against bringing on that Unwanted Fall Election.

3:35:42 PM
Hey, Dona Cadman is on this committee! And Maurice Vellacott! And Ron Cannan too, although that’s less exciting, and Ed Komornicki, and some guy whose ear I can’t quite recognize on sight.

Oh, also, this legislation is a temporary measure, but one that provides “much needed” support for long-term workers left suddenly jobless. “It’s the fair thing to do, the right thing to do, and the responsible thing to do.”

3:37:28 PM
And she ends with a dazzlingly predictable “stay the course”/no unwanted election double double whammy. Did ITQ call it or what?

3:38:33 PM
With that, it’s over to Savage, who tells the minister that he has some concerns with the bill – not that he thinks this is news to her – and wonders about the criticism that some workers who lost their jobs *last* year won’t be eligible for the extension. Finley notes that the analysis of layoffs revealed that there was “a very significant spike” who lost their jobs in January, so by fixing the date at January 4th, they’ll be covered.

What about those who *don’t* qualify, though, Savage wonders: Don’t they deserve support? Finley reminds him of the “unprecedented investments in training”, and notes that this won’t be funded from general revenue, since, well, that’s what the EI fund is there for. “But payroll taxes are very regressive,” needles Savage — wouldn’t it be better to pay this out of general revenue? Well — no, apparently; that’s why the EA!P froze premiums, so there would be no disincentive to hiring, although there *will* be “changes” in future. By which she means the eventual unfreezing, which is, in effect, a hike.

3:43:36 PM
Over to Raymonde Folco, who wonders why the minister didn’t analyse the proposed measures by gender — why, she wonders, do women seem to be left out? When Finley explains that the numbers were gleaned by looking at claims, and Folco seems boggled that the department doesn’t have the ability to break down claims by gender. Finley points out that “most of the jobs” were lost by men — women comprise only 20 percent, and Folco reminds *her* that many of these women worked part time, which has made it harder for them to find work. “This is a targeted initiative,” Finley tells the committee — part time workers got the same additional five weeks as everyone else got under the Action Plan, but this is specifically aimed at long-time workers. (Couldn’t one be a long-time part-time worker? It’s less oxymoronic than it sounds, honestly)

3:48:31 PM
Yves Lessard spends a good three minutes of his allotted time grumbling over the difficulty he has had trying to pry information out of the department, and echoes Folco’s complaint that this bill simply doesn’t help enough workers. “Why have you excluded so many people,” he wonders — and who, exactly, is in the target group? Wasn’t he listening to the opening statement? Anyway, Finley reiterates that it helps long-term workers, but Lessard wonders if auto workers, for instance, will benefit the most. (No — at least not according to the testimony that is almost certain to be forthcoming from Erin Weir.) Finley explains that even in the forestry and manufacturing sectors, there will be plenty of workers who qualify — as long as they haven’t taken more than the allowable amount of benefits in the past.

3:53:49 PM
And now, Yvon Godin, who is not pleased at all that the committee hasn’t yet gotten a copy of the minister’s brief. He also has quibbles over the drafting — the bill as written, he suggests, would penalize workers if it doesn’t make it through Parliament in time, although fixing the date at January 4th — which will require an amendment — would address that.

It transpires that he – Godin, that is – introduced a very similar amendment at a past meeting, but it was rejected by the Liberals and the Conservatives. Nefarious coalition-izing once again, no doubt.

3:57:29 PM
Not exactly mollified, but hurried along by the chair nonetheless, Godin returns to the legislation itself, and implores the minister to open up access to the extension even for those who receive severance pay. Finley notes that workers *can* “invest” their severance “in their own future”, and still take advantage of the additional benefits, but Godin wants assurances that severance pay won’t affect the extended benefits at all. The minister repeats her line about investing in the future, which, ITQ believes, translates into a soft, but unmistakeable ‘no’.

4:02:31 PM
Over to the government side, and Ed Komarnicki, who wonders how the minister sees this bill as being consistent with the original purpose of employment insurance. Yawn. Wake me up when the meticulously prepared response wraps up. (Oh, don’t worry, I’m not really napping; if the minister should say anything noteworthy, you’ll know about it.)

4:05:42 PM
And now, Ed Komarnicki will read aloud various context-free quotes from economists — including TD Bank’s Don Drummond! He hates *everything* this government does, or so it seems sometimes, so the fact that he said guardedly nice things about this particular proposal must mean it is all but unassailable.

4:07:07 PM
Ron Cannan kicks off the last half of the first government slot with what is, frankly, a cringe-inducing paeon to Finley “and her team” — really, is there anything more awkward for all concerned than watching a backbencher desperately sucking up to a minister? I can’t even *imagine* how bad it would get if the Right Honourable were to appear. Anyway, somehow, it segues into an open invitation for Finley to talk about all the great things her government has done for forestry workers, but I won’t torture y’all with the details.

4:11:04 PM
The Liberals are appalled — appalled! — by the lack of gender breakdown in the labour force statistics; Finley does her best to mollify them, but Maria Minna – who sounds like she’s composing the inevitable press release in her mind – points out that she has asked for gender analysis on this very issue; does the minister mean to tell her that it *doesn’t* exist? Apparently so. Unfortunately, what would otherwise be a legit point on which to hammer her — This Bill Does Nothing For Women! — is now mired in sleep-inducing phrases like “gender analysis” and “labour force data”, which isn’t exactly headline bait. Well, not unless you can find an anonymous senior official to talk about it.

4:15:28 PM
Oh, good: More Drummond quotes from Ed Komarnicki.

4:18:22 PM
Josee Beaudoin does her best to bring something approaching substance back to the discussion by wondering why the minister didn’t launch a pilot program to make sure that it would actually work, as was done with the career assistance initiative, and points out that, had the government taken that route, instead of proceeding through legislation, it could have come into effect immediately. “It’s quite obvious this bill would never have met the cut-off date,” she points out — so why not do it the non-legislative way?

The minister seems a bit taken aback by the question, and notes that it would have taken the same length of time to put a pilot project online, at least “operationally.” Wait, so the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois *weren’t* cruelling depriving workers of benefits by holding it up? Strike that future talking point off the list.

Beaudoin also echoes her colleague’s scepticism on the target population, and suggests that this has more to do with politics than helping those truly in need. Such cynics, those sovereigntists.

4:25:00 PM
One last trick — or at least tricky — question from the Bloc Quebecois — who, Beaudoin wonders, did the minister consult in Quebec over the bill? The foresty sector? The premier? As it turns out, she doesn’t know — or at least, that’s what she tells the committee; Beaudoin wants her to maybe look into that, and she sort says she will, and — oh, apparently that’s all we’re going to get as far as ministerial answering today; the chair suspends for five minutes, leaving ITQ to cool her thumbs before the unions hit the table. See you in 2!

4:33:56 PM
We’re back! First up, Erin Weir — he’s the Steelworkers economist who so adroitly debunked the now infamous Doughnut Speech a few weeks back — who is tall and lanky, and – despite the spelling of his moniker – male. He also thinks this particular bill should be passed, but he’s not exactly its biggest fan; it’s better than nothing, but there are still weaknesses in even what it purports to do, which is what he’s going to lay out for the committee right now.

4:36:51 PM
Ooh, shoutout to the parliamentary budget officer. That’s not going to do much to endear him to the government. He hands out a table that shows claims received and allowed, by province; the gist of his argument seems to be that too many workers are excluded, whether because the dates don’t work out, or, more often, “through no fault of their own”, they have been the victim of previous layoffs, which means they’ve likely exhausted the 36 weeks of benefit.

Oh, and also, this bill doesn’t go far enough to increase access to the EI system in general, but that probably doesn’t surprise you. (That Weir would think that, that is; ITQ takes no position on whether or not the witness is correct.)

4:44:47 PM
After taking the floor from Weir, CLC president Ken Georgetti manages to spend even *less* time discussing the bill before the committee than his union brother; after exhorting members to pass C-50 with as much speed as parliamentarily positive, he moves on to roundly condemn the EI system as a whole. It’s heartwrenching stuff — he quotes a union member living on reserve, who noted, somewhat wistfully, that in his community, they’d love to be upgraded from abject poverty to a mere recession.

He also waggles a finger disapprovingly at the House of Commons for slacking off on sitting days since the economic crisis hit, although in their defence, there was a summer recess, an election and a surprise prorogation in the mix.

4:50:09 PM
Rosalie Washington, it transpires, is a CLC member, and an unemployed worker herself — with three kids, and a husband who makes minimum wage, who simply can’t find work. She beseeches the committee to pass C-50, but notes that she needs help — she, and many others, who can’t get by on EI alone. “Having a job — we desire jobs,” she tells them. “I need a job, because a job pays the bills.” She nearly breaks down when she lists the ages of her children, and repeats her plea for the passage of C-50.
The chair thanks her for putting a face” on what the bill is supposed to do, and hands the mic back to Mike Savage. He wonders if either of the two organizational witnesses have done any analysis of the bill, and also picks up on Weir’s reference to the PBO, and takes a side shot at the prime minister for once again misstating the projected cost of the Liberals’ proposed reforms.

4:55:23 PM
Savage then takes the potentially risky tack of challenging — politely, but distinctly — Washington’s repeated assertion that the bill will help her, and needs to be passed post-haste; he tells her about a woman in his riding, who is also out of work, but isn’t eligible for the benefits extension. “There are so many people who aren’t being helped,” he laments — and the view of the government seems to be that they don’t *deserve* to be helped.

Washington, not surprisingly, agrees that part-timers need support too.

5:02:50 PM
Due to a sudden — but luckily temporary server glitch, the contributions of Maria Minna to the discussion have, alas, been lost to the pixelgods; it had to do with gender-based analysis, and fairness, and the deserving unemployed.

Meanwhile, Yves Lessard is downright cranky at his fellow committee members, and doesn’t seem terribly impressed with the witnesses, either — the unions that *his* party consulted about the legislation, he sniffs, were universally opposed to the bill, as it unfairly excludes too many unemployed workers, who are, apparently, not sufficiently deserving. This isn’t actually a question, is it?

5:08:15 PM
No, it wasn’t, but the chair gives the witnesses an opportunity to respond anyway; Weir and Georgetti both agree that more needs to be done, but, as the latter points out, they’re negotiators — when something is on the table, they work with it, and they’re not going to risk no one getting anything because not everyone is getting something. Okay, that made more sense when he said it, but you get the gist.

5:09:46 PM
Oh, great — now Folco is lecturing the chair for calling Mme. Washington by her first name, despite the fact that he refers to the other witnesses — the boy witnesses — by honourific. Seriously, did the Liberals raid Status of Women to fill up the seats at this meeting?

5:13:44 PM
And now, a moment — actually, make that six minutes — of Yvon Godin fuming about the many, many complaints that he has about the EI program, writ large, small or any size you choose; he’s still going to vote for the bill, but — wait, how did this turn into a debate over downloading responsibilties onto the municipalities? ITQ blames David Miller.

5:19:45 PM
Ed Komarnicki, now, apparently, freed entirely from the shackles of shame, baits the witnesses to trash the Liberals for voting against the bill and attempting to force an unnecessary election; when Georgetti doesn’t cooperate, Komarnicki obligingly puts words into his mouth, “So, you want them to stop playing politics?” No, Georgetti says, just as politely — he expects them to play politics. That’s their job, after all — but he also expects all members to “go back to drawing board.”

Okay, give it up, Ed. You’ve tried four times to get either a soundbyte damning the Liberals, or praising the government out of this guy. It’s just not going to happen.

5:25:04 PM
Weir – who I’m starting to have a geeky economist crush on – is trying his best to dodge Komarnicki’s loaded questions while still answering in an honest, straightforward way. After another few go-rounds with the only member on the government side to ask a single question, he gets a reprieve from the chair, who adjourns for the day.