The Commons: A morality play

Diane Finley is left to defend the government’s record on employment

The Scene. It was Jack Layton who, yesterday, tried to impose some perspective on the proceedings.

“We are talking about real people here,” he said in the Prime Minister’s general direction, implicitly acknowledging the difference between what happens here and what’s going on everywhere else.

It was Libby Davies who, filling in today for an absent Layton, dared to suggest there were morals to be found in all this.

“Mr. Speaker, the minister knows full well that the number one issue when it comes to employment insurance is eligibility. A five-week extension does not help the 57 per cent who do not qualify to begin with. This House has spoken loudly and clearly that EI eligibility must be reformed, but this Prime Minister has refused to listen,” she said, referring to an opposition motion, passed 152-140 in the House a few weeks ago, that demanded changes to the government’s distribution of aid to the unemployed.

“This is the same person who said that a prime minister ‘has a moral responsibility to respect the will of the House,’ ” she continued. “I would like to ask the Prime Minister, what happened to those morals, why is he ignoring the will of the House and denying the unemployed the EI benefits they so desperately need?”

The Prime Minister did not stand and answer this one, leaving the matter to Diane Finley, the Human Resources Minister who suggested last month that she was hesitant to make unemployment too lucrative a lifestyle and has since become the government’s primary spokeswoman on our current economic peril.

“Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask the honourable member why she will not tell Canadians the real facts, which are that over 80 per cent of people who contribute to EI can collect the benefits,” Finley responded, repeating a figure her critics wildly and loudly dispute.

“I would also like to ask her to explain to Canadians why she and her party voted against an additional five weeks of benefits for those who need it most when they need it most,” she said, taunting the NDP with its own vote against the budget. “I would like to ask her why her party opposed providing training, not just for those who are on EI but for those who do not even qualify for EI so that those people can get the benefit of long-term training to get long-term jobs to take care of their family. Why would she not support those moves to help Canadians?”

This is, for sure, a brutal debate, having to do, as it does, with people’s livelihoods and such. One in which Finley is distinctly disadvantaged, having to answer, as she does, for the dire realities of those real people.

“Mr. Speaker, Canada is shedding jobs and fast, faster in fact than the U.S. We have a government in disarray, scrambling to make up for its inaction. We saw that clearly in its delayed response to dealing with delays,” Michael Savage had asked her earlier. “The big question is access to EI. The minister denies the problem exists. That would be funny if it were not so sad … These are real Canadian families who are scared to death, wondering how they are going to feed their children. What does she have to say to them?”

“Thanks for your support, Mike!” chirped James Moore, the Heritage Minister, from the far end of the room.

“Do something!” yelped a Liberal.

“Pathetic!” grumbled Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.

“Mr. Speaker, our government has been very clear in our economic action plan,” responded Finley, heralding her government’s commitment to spend $60-million hiring new staff to better process the jobless.

“Mr. Speaker, that does not do anything for those who do not qualify,” snapped Savage. “Everybody else seems to know there is a problem here. It is not just opposition parties, it is social policy groups, anti-poverty organizations, labour … Why will the minister not stop denying the problem, stop the excuses, throw away her misleading statistics and think of Canadian families who are sitting at kitchen tables abandoned by the government, out of options, wondering why the EI they paid into for years is not there when they need it now?”

Finley responded with a series of statistics and assurances, doing what she could with what she had.

Eventually, the Speaker called on Bonnie Crombie, the rookie Liberal from Mississauga.

“Mr. Speaker, the numbers are staggering,” she observed. “Foreclosures. Bankruptcies. Job losses. Severances. Every day, we are seeing the painful human face of this recession. In my riding, Ted, a father of four with a wife on disability, is worried he is going to lose his home because he cannot get EI. He is 11 hours short of what the government demands. Eleven hours. Why are these Conservatives abandoning thousands of Ontarians like Ted, who worked hard, paid EI premiums, played by the rules and are now left to fend for themselves?”

It is tempting to dismiss such tales, at least when told by politicians, as cheap, patronizing populism—shameless manipulation of another’s problems to glorify your own engagement. But, whatever the motive, Ted’s tale is probably no less relevant. No less, as Jack Layton might say, real.

“Mr. Speaker, our heart goes out to the Teds of the world right across this country,” Finley responded. “There is no question about that. That is why we took the actions we did in our economic action plan: to help people like that. Even when they are not eligible for EI, there are programs there to help them get the skills they will need for the jobs of the future. There are other programs there to preserve jobs so that people do not get into that position.”

Crombie was not impressed. “Mr. Speaker, this is no time for empty, cold-hearted Conservative rhetoric,” she ventured. “EI claims are skyrocketing in Ontario. Bankruptcies are up 21 per cent with Ontario facing the biggest impact. In Mississauga, auto workers with 20 to 30 years seniority have simply been dropped by their companies. The Conservatives told investors not to invest in Ontario and now they have abandoned Ontario themselves.”

From a couple seats over, Jason Kenney leaned towards Finley and offered a few words of advice.

“Mr. Speaker, let us be honest here,” Finley said when Crombie was finished. “The Liberals brought in the new system for EI. It was a Liberal program that set up the criteria for eligibility. We are continuing with that program, but we are adding to it. We are adding to it so that we can help workers, especially long-tenured workers, those who have been in a job in the auto sector for many years and have lost their job. They are too young to retire. We are providing them with up to two years of EI support while they invest in new training to keep the jobs of the future so they can transition and look after their families in the long term, even under the rules the Liberals created.”

No doubt Finley and Kenney thought this a fine answer.

The Stats. Employment, 10 questions. CBC and crime, six questions each. Forestry, Afghanistan, trade, bilingualism, agriculture, taxes and election financing, two questions each. Flooding in Manitoba and medical marijuana, one question each.

Diane Finley, nine answers. Stephen Harper and James Moore, four answers each. Rob Nicholson, three answers. Stockwell Day, three answers. Lawrence Cannon, Jason Kenney, Gerry Ritz, Jim Flaherty and Peter Van Loan, two answers each. Christian Paradis, Lisa Raitt, Pierre Poilievre, Jay Hill and Leona Aglukkaq, one answer each.