Below is my recent TJ column on EI usage in New Brunswick and how the new reforms may be having an impact.
During the 2006 federal election campaign, we were warned that if elected Stephen Harper would slash and burn our cherished social safety net and dismantle federal economic development efforts in the region. The Tories would employ a scorched earth policy and many more Atlantic Canadians would be forced to move to Western Canada.
This dire prediction turned out not to be true. However, there is a new theory emerging that the Conservatives are playing a ‘long game’ with the same objective of reducing dependency on the federal government. They have the same goal but are looking to get there through attrition.
The proponents of this theory point to the ongoing cuts at ACOA and the NRC, other federal spending cuts, downsizing of federal employment, tapering back immigration in the region and a general lack of interest in any kind of new strategy to revitalize the ailing economy – at least in the three Maritime provinces.
Employment Insurance (EI) reform is said to be another example of the new strategy. In line with the attrition strategy, public unrest over the reform this time was moderate in comparison to those enacted in the early to mid-1990s.
If the goal is to reduce New Brunswick’s dependency on EI over time, preliminary data suggests the government might be starting to have success.
In the first five months of 2013, the average number of unemployed persons in New Brunswick rose by nine percent. At the same time, however; the number of persons receiving some type of EI income benefits declined by six percent.
In addition, the number of EI disqualifications and disentitlements in New Brunswick jumped by 17 percent in the first five months of 2013 compared to the same period a year ago.
I share the government’s objective of reducing our dependency on EI. I have always started from the premise that those who want to earn year-round income should work year-round. If for some reason they cannot we should have an unemployment insurance scheme in place just like every other advanced nation around the world.
If we have seasonal industries and seasonal employment, we should staff these industries/jobs with workers those who only want to earn income on a seasonal basis (i.e. students, second income earners, etc.). Alternatively, seasonal workers should try to find other employment in the ‘off-season’.
We were told the EI reforms were put in place to strengthen the labour market and help foster more business investment and economic growth. In its zeal to reduce EI usage, it is imperative the federal government doesn’t kill the patient while treating the disease.
For example, in conjunction with the EI reforms, the federal government is now tightening the rules around the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program using the excuse that more Canadians should be working those jobs.
Because of the clamp down, I am hearing that some employers with operations in New Brunswick and in other provinces are now suggesting they may postpone expansion here because they have an easier time attracting immigrant workers in other provinces.
If this occurs it would be a great tragedy. Over the past two decades, New Brunswick has attracted tens of thousands of mostly good paying jobs that companies could have been deployed elsewhere across North America but did so here in large part because of the quality of our labour market.
I and others have advocated that an aggressive immigration strategy (including broad use of the TFW program) should be part of an overall strategy to ensure a high quality labour market pipeline so that firms with a national or international footprint will prefer to expand here.
If the EI reforms indirectly hurt this objective, it will be even harder for this province to emerge from its recent economic funk.
If the Conservatives care about Atlantic Canada, the ‘long game’ shouldn’t be only about reducing dependency. It should be about strengthening the economy. Federal policy should be geared towards the latter objective.