The Scene. Michael Ignatieff put his right thumb and index finger together and tried to explain the situation to the Prime Minister.
“Mr. Speaker, there were 24,000 new claimants for employment insurance this January,” he said. “That is bad enough. But thousands more Canadians are losing their jobs and are not able to claim EI, even though they paid into the system.”
He closed his fist as he approached the question.
“The government is trying to patch EI with duct tape while evading the real issue, which is eligibility,” Ignatieff continued. “Will the government adjust the eligibility requirements so that all Canadians, wherever they live, can claim EI when they need it?”
The Prime Minister rose to respond. Or at least speak next.
“Mr. Speaker, the leader of the Liberal party should know that eligibility for EI is determined by the region in which one lives, according to a formula. As, obviously, employment conditions become more difficult, eligibility becomes easier,” he explained. “This is the government that has put additional moneys into EI. This is the government that has made sure people who need EI during this recession will be able to access it for a longer time to get more training. We have brought in new additional EI training. Also, we have made sure that EI cheques can get out faster.”
The Liberal leader did not appear obviously impressed with this. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I take that as a ‘no,’ so let me rephrase the question.”
Demonstrating a certain ambidextrousness, Ignatieff put his left thumb and index finger together this time. “Lots of Canadians have paid into EI, they lose their jobs and they cannot get the benefits they need when they need them,” he explained. “So, I ask again, is the Prime Minister prepared to review eligibility requirements for EI so the system is fair—because it is about fairness here—fair for all Canadians?”
Back came the Prime Minister. “Mr. Speaker, the leader of the opposition should know those who are not eligible for EI it is often because in fact they did not pay into EI in most cases because they are not participants, and of course there are cases where they do not have sufficient hours,” he said.
“Nooo!” yelled the Liberal side.
“He doesn’t understand!” moaned one.
“However, this government has brought in important enhancements to EI,” Mr. Harper continued. “The leader of the opposition was asked for some proposals for the budget. He did not provide any. That is why we have moved forward with the proposal to increase the number of weeks of eligibility.”
At this point, Ignatieff seemed to discard his script. “Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister keeps asking me for proposals. It is as if he wants me to do his job,” he said, his Liberals applauding loudly. “I would, of course, like to do his job when the time comes. However, let me ask the question again. Is he saying that the fact that the unemployed are not eligible is their fault?”
Mr. Harper stood and adjusted his suit jacket. “Mr. Speaker, of course we are not saying that,” he said, offering perhaps his first direct response to the man seated across the aisle. “That is why this government has been acting to help the unemployed during this recession.”
Not one to demure from a challenge, the Prime Minister continued, his voice rising as his hands swung this way and that, prodding the air and pointing dismissively at his rival. “What we are saying is that whether somebody is prime minister or not, when they are elected to have responsibility in this House during a recession, they are here to help Canadians, not just to try and play on bad news for their own strategic advantage,” he yelped. “It is irresponsible and Canadians see through it.”
The Conservatives applauded their leader happily.
A question from Gilles Duceppe later gave the Prime Minister an excuse to use the word “coalition,” then it was Jack Layton’s turn, the NDP leader choosing to confront Harper with arithmetic.
“Mr. Speaker, 129,000 more Canadians were thrown out of work last January, yet the number of EI recipients only went up by 23,000 in that month. That is, 100,000 Canadians lost their jobs but did not get any help from this government,” he explained. “Can the Prime Minister explain the huge discrepancy between the number of people thrown out of work and the number who cannot get help for their families when they need it most from this government?”
Mr. Harper blamed the NDP.
Layton tried again. “Mr. Speaker, in Canada there were 1,310,000 unemployed in January, but only 560,000 of the total unemployed were receiving any help from EI,” he said. “Under this Prime Minister, 57 per cent of those hard-working Canadians who live by the rules, paid into the insurance fund but needed help cannot get it. Why will he not fix it?”
Before the Prime Minister could respond, Layton offered a half dozen suggestions. “He could reduce the minimum to qualify, drop the waiting period, and increase the wage replacement rate. He could make sure that no matter where one lives in Canada, one gets the same kind of help. That is what Parliament wants him to do. Why will he not do it?”
Mr. Harper blamed both the Liberals and the NDP.
“I do not know which is worse, the Liberal party that votes for something then criticizes, or the NDP that asks for something and then votes against it,” he said, returning to his seat with a slight smile.
Once more came Layton. “Mr. Speaker, the fact is the majority of people who need help from EI cannot get it from this government,” he said. “The Prime Minister should learn to count. We are talking about real people here.”
Mr. Harper once more directed everyone’s attention to the NDP. “This is the problem with the NDP,” he said. “They are so anxious to be against everything, to never have any responsibility for anything, but they vote against everything. That is why at times like this the workers of Canada never entrust their future to the NDP.”
That clarified, the workers of Canada, declining in number as they may be, will surely sleep better tonight.
The Stats. Employment, 13 questions. Forestry, five questions. Economic development and the CBC, four questions each. Afghanistan, arts funding, fetal alcohol syndrome and election financing, two questions each. The budget, Kashmir, the Montreal port, the gun registry, science, student politics and Omar Khadr, one question each.
Stephen Harper, seven answers. James Moore, six answers. Diane Finley, five answers. Denis Lebel, Stockwell Day and Lawrence Cannon, four answers each. Leona Aglukkaq, two answers. Christian Paradis, Vic Toews, John Baird, Peter Van Loan, Lisa Raitt and Gary Goodyear, one answer each.