While Rome burns

Full column for today is below, but an update of sorts.

The Liberals sent out a press release this afternoon that says changes to employment insurance come into effect on April 1. Asked to respond, Jim Flaherty’s press secretary, Chisholm Pothier, sent over a statement that says changes to employment insurance can become active before April 1 and the Liberals are “playing politics with the lives of Canadians.”

The Conservative party has also now sent out a letter to supporters that takes personal aim at Michael Ignatieff, talks of a possible election and asks for donations of $100 or $200 to help fight Liberal “obstruction.” The letter is signed by Conservative senator Irving Gerstein.

Meantime, I spoke to Marc Roy, an aide in the office of Liberal senate leader James Cowan.

I’ll reprint Roy’s version of events and Pothier’s statement here for the record.

Pothier. The Liberals are absolutely wrong. They are playing politics with the lives of Canadians whose EI is about to run out.

If the budget bill was passed today, the EI extension takes effect immediately. A person who is in the last week of their EI benefits would gain the five week extension today. A person whose benefits ran out in the past two weeks would get a five week extension because the measure takes effect retroactive two weeks. Many Canadians whose EI benefits are ending or have ended, will not qualify for the 5 week extension if the Liberal Senators delay this bill for another 3 weeks.  The Liberals will be leaving them in the cold.

The Liberals are playing partisan games with Canadians who are particularly vulnerable in the midst of a global economic recession. This is offensive and Canadians need to know that. And why are they playing with people’s livelihoods? To stand on some sort of symbolic victory for the unelected Senate, to say they held up the government’s budget for a couple of weeks?

Vulnerable Canadians cannot afford symbolic Liberal victories and stupid partisanship at this time of crisis. This is Ignatieff’s lame attempt to change the channel from not keeping his word when he said he was going to make sure his Senators pass this bill “expeditiously”, it points to his lack of leadership.

RoyBasically, until Flaherty came before the Senate finance committee yesterday, all the Senate government leadership was asking of the Liberal opposition was completion of the study by the end of the month. That’s all they were asking. Until yesterday when Minister Flaherty came out and asked for immediate passage. We had already agreed to the request by the government to complete the Senate’s work by the end of the month. And that agreement stands.

Senator Day, the Liberal chair of the national finance committee, has worked out a schedule with Senator Gerstein, the Conservative vice-chair, that would have the committee hold approximately 40 hours of hearings and report back to the Senate chamber on the 26th of March. And we have also agreed, and we were completing willing, to consider third reading of the bill immediately upon the committee reporting. That’s usually done in a day.

The Conservatives are playing games and saying that we’re delaying the bill. On Wednesday, we sat until 6:30 and sat back again at 7:00pm in order to receive the message from the House that the bill had been passed. On Thursday, we gave the bill second reading in one day and sent it to committee. The absolute next sitting day was the Tuesday. In the morning, the finance committee met and already we were hearing from the minister. So in two days we had second reading, sent it to committee and already had the minister testify before the committee … The committee sought and received from the Senate approval to meet outside the regular time frames …. and they’ve already started that. They had hearings until 6:30pm tonight.

We will continue on this pace and we’ve agreed to a timeline with the vice chair, who’s a Conservative, on holding all these hearings and reporting back to the Senate on the 26th.

The Senate government leadership has never requested the bill any sooner than the end of the month. And this was something totally new thrown into the mix by Minister Flaherty yesterday … They said, As long as you finish this study by the end of the month, it’s fine with us. That’s always what they had said … I would just specify that we originally asked the gov about their time line for the budget before it came to our Chamber and they replied that all they wanted was for the Senate to complete its work before April 1st.

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