Friday, 1 March 2013

This Is NOT What Fairness Looks Like

Look for motivation, and the language being used. Those were first steps for me when covering a complicated story with either government, or a well-heeled corporation in the middle of it. The EI story has both. It certainly plays well to the Conservative's western base: it cuts government expenditures,  sends a message that EI freeloaders won't be tolerated, and forces the opposition parties to defend the lazy stay-at-homes. It's win-win-win as far as Stephen Harper is concerned. That's the motivation. The language came in February: "integrity investigators" is what the Service Canada (itself a name worthy of Orwell) folks are calling the people asked to go door to door and check how hard EI recipients are trying to find work. The minister in charge puts it this way: "Human Resources Minister Diane Finley says EI fraud costs ''hundreds of millions of dollars'' each year, hurting those people who are legitimately out of work and in need of benefits."  Now fraud is not a good thing, but I'm not clear how EI fraud hurts people who are "legitimately out of work and in need of benefits".  What we can say for sure is that investigating fraud has created a lot of anxiety amongst the honest and guilty, and to what end.

Years ago a very smart person said to me that for every person who works around or just outside the edges of the EI system, there are just as many rich people who hire smart lawyers to work around the edges of tax law.  Has the government sent any "integrity investigators" into Westmount or Rosedale?

For me the most frustrating part of this is the lack of respect and understanding of the nature of seasonal work.  Yes there are anomalies: inshore fishermen are the only independent business people eligible to receive EI, and many of them can make good money on crab or lobster. (that hasn't been the case the last couple of years, and the EI payments have been badly needed).  It started really in the seventies when Romeo Leblanc was Federal Fisheries Minister and he didn't want small boat Newfoundland ground fishermen to starve to death, and if these inshore fishermen were to get paid, others had to as well. 

But it's the nature of the jobs that keep people from going to work everyday, not the nature or the quality of the people.  Someone has to harvest the oysters, cook the lobster, make the beds in the tourism accommodations, dig the potatoes, etc.  When the rich and powerful settle into a plate of choice oysters in a bar in Toronto, Calgary, or Ottawa, do they want to pay the true cost of keeping a harvester's family going, or the subsidized price allowed by an EI system.

There continues to be good evidence that a "guaranteed annual income" plan is still the most efficient, fair, and productive way to maintain a social safety net, but these are words that will be spoken even less than "green shift".

And it's not as if EI recipients have secret Swiss bank accounts. They get the cheque and spend it and more putting food on the table, oil in the tank, that's how a consumption based economy works. Taking money out of the hands of people takes the same money from the local grocery store and fuel company, who in turn can't pay their employees, and on and on it goes. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a very good book on the Depression which stuck with me. He wrote that there was no shortage of wood, hammers, nails, and skilled carpenters during the 20's and '30's, there was a lack of money to put these to work. That's why people suffered. EI is one way (maybe not the best way) to make sure this doesn't happen again. That's a pretty good deal for everyone.

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