The Scene. It was of something Peter Van Loan said in his third response yesterday that Thomas Mulcair asked his first question today.
“Does the Prime Minister agree,” the NDP leader asked, “that employment insurance is, to quote his House leader, ‘an incentive for people to be unemployed?’ ”
Mr. Harper stood and clarified the necessity of employment insurance and asserted his interest in seeing people find jobs. Then he attempted to deal with the details.
“In the past, the way employment insurance worked was that individuals who went back to work lost dollar for dollar everything that they gained when they returned to work,” he said. “For the vast majority of people that is what happened. We are trying to make sure that Canadians can go back to work and continue to benefit.”
Mr. Mulcair proceeded to venture that Mr. Harper was not much interested in helping the unemployed. And, further, that Mr. Harper’s lack of interest extended to various people and concepts. “Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister is not interested in meeting with the premiers. He is not interested in working together. He is not interested in the unemployed,” the NDP leader alleged. “He will travel around the world to Davos, to South America, to China but he will not even sit down with Canadian premiers. In seven years he has only met with the premiers once, the worst record of any prime minister.”
There was grumbling from the government side.
“Why will the Prime Minister not even listen to the people on the ground?” Mr. Mulcair asked. “Why will the Prime Minister not work together with his own fellow Canadians here at home?”
Mr. Harper has actually met with the premiers en masse twice—in November 2008 and January 2009. But the Prime Minister had an even more impressive-sounding number to table here.
“On the contrary, Mr. Speaker,” he responded. “I have met in person or spoken by telephone with Canadian premiers 250 times since 2006.”
This didn’t quite explain why Mr. Harper does not wish to meet with the premiers this fall, but the Conservatives stood to applaud their man’s communications skills all the same.
The math here is tricky—a summit with all the premiers apparently only counts as one meeting in the Prime Minister’s tally—but roughly speaking it would seem the Prime Minister has a conversation with a premier every 9.7 days. This is more often than you probably speak to some of your friends, but less often than you should be calling your mother (and if one imagines a premier exists somewhere between a friend and a familial relation for a prime minister, that seems about right). But there are 13 premiers and territorial leaders. If Mr. Harper were going nearly ten days between calling one, it might take him four months to speak with each of them. So how to know what to make of this number? (Perhaps the real measure should be how often Mr. Harper has called Robert Ghiz as compared to how often previous prime ministers checked in on Prince Edward Island. Perhaps something of a Mendoza Line for cooperative federalism could be established.)
The math became more complicated as the discussion narrowed in on this question of employment insurance.
“Mr. Speaker, does the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development just not know that prior to August 5, EI claimants could earn 40% of their weekly benefits without any penalty?” Wayne Easter wondered from the far end of the room in his sing-songy whine. “Take Jennifer, a registered nurse in my riding on parental leave. Jennifer worked part-time to fill nursing-care shortages and keep up her skills. However, the government now has clawed back 50¢ on every dollar earned, making her worse off with the changes. Will the Prime Minister explain to this new mom on parental leave why he is taking half her wages for covering nursing shortages?”
In response, Diane Finley channeled Paul Harvey.
“Mr. Speaker, what the honourable member conveniently ignores is the rest of this story,” the Human Resources Minister reprimanded. “That is that if Jennifer had worked more than 40%, every single dollar that she earned would have been clawed back on her EI. That is a disincentive to work. Our country cannot afford that. We have a shortage of skills and labour right across this country in a wide range of sectors and industries and professions. As a government, we want to ensure that Canadians are always better off when they are working. We are working toward that goal and we will continue to work toward that goal.”
“She doesn’t get it!” called a voice from the Liberal corner.
Now it was Rodger Cuzner’s turn to test the minister’s problem-solving skills. “The basic math shows that anybody who makes $260 a week or under is penalized under these rule changes. Stats Canada figures show us that part-time workers’ median income is $230 a week. So that would tell me that EI recipients who are working part-time are being penalized,” Mr. Cuzner concluded. “When will the minister admit that there is a problem and come and fix this problem?”
Ms. Finley opted here for optimism. “Mr. Speaker, the vast majority of people who are working on a claim will indeed be better off,” she offered. “That was our goal: to ensure that we have all the talented work that we can get. And we are working to connect Canadians with jobs. That is something the Liberals did not do.”
There were more grumbles from the Liberal corner. “It’s not working!” called a voice.
“We want to help,” Ms. Finley explained. “We will continue to improve the program so that our goals are achieved.”
Perhaps we might straighten all of this out with conference call between the premiers, the Prime Minister and Jennifer.
The Stats. The economy, seven questions. Ethics, fisheries and the F-35, four questions each. Employment insurance and pensions, three questions each. Elections Canada, product safety and foreign investment, two questions each. Infrastructure, the environment, aboriginal affairs, the oil industry, immigration and poverty, one question each.
Diane Finley, nine responses. Rona Ambrose and Keith Ashfield, four responses each. Stephen Harper and Pierre Poilievre, three responses each. Mike Lake, Tim Uppal, Tony Clement, Colin Carrie, Ed Fast, Greg Rickford and Ted Menzies, two responses each. Peter Kent and Rick Dykstra, one response each.