The Commons: Senators need not fear unemployment - Macleans.ca

The Commons: Senators need not fear unemployment

Diane Finley explains the difference between a quota and a target

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Thomas Mulcair stood first to mock.

“Mr. Speaker, Conservative Senator Mike Duffy has now admitted he mistakenly collected, maybe, about, $100,000 in Senate housing allowances. How does one accidentally claim $100,000 in living expenses? He says the form was too complicated,” the NDP leader reported sarcastically. “We also have Senator Pamela Wallin who has an Ontario health card while claiming to be a resident of Saskatchewan. She told the federal government that she lived in one province but told the provincial government that she lived in another. This would be unacceptable for any other Canadian. Why does the Prime Minister seem to think it is acceptable for his Conservative senators?”

The Prime Minister was away, so it was Peter Van Loan’s responsibility this day to offer the official reassurances. “Mr. Speaker, we have committed to ensure that all expenses are appropriate,” the Government House leader reported, “that the rules governing expenses are appropriate and to report back to the public on these matters.”

But Mr. Van Loan apparently sensed that Mr. Mulcair was not sufficiently serious in his concern for the Senate. “The reality is, if we want to see real change in the Senate, real change toward an accountable Senate,” Mr. Van Loan segued, “we need to embrace the Conservative proposal to actually let Canadians have a say on who represents them in the Senate. The NDP simply will not do that.”

So if you are truly upset with the actions of the senators Mr. Harper has appointed, you simply must agree to pass Mr. Harper’s legislation to reform the Senate. Neat trick, that. Indeed, if this has been the Prime Minister’s play all along, to appoint dozens of senators—and two former members of the press gallery at that—in the hopes that somehow someday they would do something to incite the sort of controversy that would leave everyone begging for change, he is precisely three times the brilliant strategist he is often thought to be.

Of course, if Mr. Van Loan really wanted to move ahead with Senate reform, he might invoke time allocation to bring the legislation to a vote. Unless the Conservatives now believe that such maneuvering, of which they have otherwise been so fond, is somehow undemocratic.

This much though was merely the preamble this day. Indeed, for perhaps the first time since Confederation, the Senate was only the setup and not the punchline.

“Conservative senators are presumed innocent,” Mr. Mulcair soon compared, “while the unemployed are presumed guilty.”

Three weeks ago, Mr. Mulcair recalled, the Human Resources Minister had said there were no fraud-finding quotas for government employees charged with administering employment insurance. A new report suggested otherwise. The NDP leader wondered if the minister might ask for the forgiveness of the hard-working Canadians she was treating like criminals.

Instead, Diane Finley stood to explain that she’d been right all along.

“Service Canada indicates that it does not impose quotas that would result in negative consequences for employees who fail to achieve them,” she said. “Rather, there are performance targets that help protect benefits for unemployed people against fraud.”

“Ohh!” sighed various New Democrats in mock realization.

So it is not that government employees must reach a quota or be punished, it’s just that there is a target they are encouraged to reach.

Mr. Mulcair was unimpressed. He accused Ms. Finley of misleading the House and, for good measure, he wondered if she might call off the inspectors—”Reform Macoutes,” he called them, apparently in reference to this—she’s apparently dispatched to knock on doors and quiz EI recipients.

But now Ms. Finley was apparently quite worried about what might happen if Mr. Mulcair somehow mocked her into not acting. “Mr. Speaker, last year the employment insurance program lost hundreds of millions of dollars due to fraud and ineligible payments, and that despite nearly half a billion dollars of ineligible payments that were detected and stopped by Service Canada,” she explained.  “The only people who lose if the opposition stops us from rooting out employment insurance fraud are Canadians who follow the rules.”

For the sake of avoiding unflattering references to the Conservative Senator for Prince Edward Island, Ms. Finley’s minders might want to advise her to remove the phrase “ineligible payments” from her explanation.

Mr. Mulcair attempted to finish with a flourish. “The minister is sending investigators into the homes of randomly selected seasonal workers in Atlantic Canada. They cannot send them to inspect senators of course because we do not know where they actually live,” Mr. Mulcair mocked.

The New Democrats laughed.

“We know what the Prime Minister thinks about workers in Atlantic Canada. He calls them losers, and says that they have a ‘culture of defeat,’ ” Mr. Mulcair continued, proving that no good gaffe ever really dies. “Does that explain the reaction and the attitude of the minister? Does she think that they are a bunch of losers as well?”

The New Democrats stood to applaud.

“Mr. Speaker, that is absolutely a load of nonsense,” Ms. Finley sighed. “We are supporting Canadians in their efforts to get back to work. That is why we have expanded the job alerts program and we have expanded the job banks, so Canadians get the information about the jobs that are available for them. EI is there as a temporary income support to help Canadians while they are transitioning to another job. However, if the jobs are not available, then EI will be there for Canadians as it always has been.”

Ms. Finley finished with a reassuring and entirely non-threatening smile.

Fear not then beleaguered senators. Should you find yourself declared ineligible for your assigned seat in the Senate, you will not simply be hustled out of the chamber and deposited on Wellington Street to fend for yourself. The government of Canada will be there for you. With regular emails about jobs in your field. Presuming, one supposes, some province or municipality decides to open its own upper house.