Chris Hall: EI reforms, an attack on fraud or the unemployed?

Is Ottawa attacking the unemployed when it sends 'integrity investigators' after those suspected of EI fraud? However you look at it, the government is not doing a good job selling its proposed reforms, Chris Hall writes.
Union members in Riviere-du-Loup protest against more stringent employment insurance rules outside a company that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was visiting on Thursday. In Parliament, the criticism was even more pointed. (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

One of the most difficult things in government is selling a negative. Ask any cabinet minister or MP who's tried to convince voters of the benefits of slashing budgets or cutting services people use.

It may be the right medicine, but it leaves a bad taste.

That's the situation that Stephen Harper's government faces as it defends its effort to crack down on employment insurance fraud.

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.

The opposition, of course, is buying none of it.

All this week, New Democrats and Liberals leapt on the news that government ''integrity investigators'' are visiting the homes of 1,200 randomly selected EI recipients across the country, seeking out people who might be abusing the system.

According to internal documents, there were quotas for the amounts those investigators must recover as well as the suggestion that the government had a system of management bonuses linked to the success of this work.

It made for great fodder in the Commons. And lent itself to more of the excessive rhetoric, on both sides, that passes for political debate these days.

Finley suggested the opposition stood with the EI fraudsters, a tactic the Conservatives have used before to paint the opposition as more concerned with criminals than victims, and even, once, as siding with child pornographers.

"The only people who will lose if the opposition prevents us from rooting out those who will cheat the system are Canadians who play by the rules," Finley said.

Not to be outdone, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair framed his comments to appeal to voters in the two regions most affected by any changes to EI.

He resurrected the prime minister's long ago reference to Atlantic Canadians having ''a culture of defeat.''

And in a reference intended directly for Quebeckers, he compared the federal investigators to the feared Haitian paramilitary units under Papa Doc Duvalier known as the Tonton Macoutes — mimicking what opponents in Quebec did some 20 years ago in the face of a crackdown on social assistance recipients in that province

"We want Harper and his thugs to stop attacking the unemployed,'' Mulcair said.


For his part, Liberal Bob Rae argued that showing up randomly at people's homes smacks of intimidation, and he accused the government of employing the tactic deliberately.

"The idea that you would routinely be going into home after home after home, to me, creates a very oppressive climate for people, and makes everyone feel like criminals.''

By mid-week the daily barrage had left its mark.

On Wednesday, Finley's office was scrambling. Her staff quickly organized a briefing for reporters to try to counter the opposition's claims, and to explain how these integrity audits worked.

Among other things, the officials told reporters that they are trying to recover $330 million in incorrect EI payments in the past year alone, much of it due to suspected fraud.

They explained that the department does 400,000 of these kinds of EI audits every year. And they maintained that there is no bonus system or individual quotas for these so-called integrity officers to meet.

These were, of course, the same arguments Finley herself had been making day in and day out during Question Period. The same arguments the prime minister trotted out as the questioning became more intense.

But it all adds up to the unmistakeable signs of a government unable to put a positive spin on its efforts to reform EI at a time when premiums are going up, and benefits are going down.

Not to mention a time of massive change to both the makeup of the Canadian workforce, and to the types of skills employers now need.

Regional divide

Conservatives insist there's broad support across the country for bringing their law and order agenda to EI to protect taxpayers' money from abuse.

But there's a wider message the government seems unable to get across about why it believes EI must be transformed.

As Canadian economist Morley Gunderson put it, in an article entitled Employment Insurance in the New World of Work, "EI in Canada has evolved from an insurance scheme to contain elements of more general income support and regional development for which it is not properly designed.''

The Harper government agrees. Its long view is that EI must be a true insurance program, there for those people — and only those people — who are legitimately out of a job and unable to find a new one.

The Conservatives also want to bring in fewer temporary workers to fill jobs that Canadians can and should do.

And they are working to increase the pool of skilled workers to fill jobs in industries that are begging for bodies.

Diane Finley's mantra is Canadians want to work and the government's job is to help them find work.

She says the measures the Conservatives have introduced: tighter eligibility rules, reduced benefits, more updates on available jobs, and the requirement that EI recipients accept work that's up to 100 kilometres away are all intended to do that.

In Western Canada, there's broad editorial support for that.

In Quebec and Atlantic Canada, where many communities depend on seasonal industries such as the fishery and logging, support is as hard to find as year-round employment.

The challenge for the Conservatives is to bridge that regional divide, and convince Canadians that the EI system will be there for those who need it without the alleged abuses.

In other words, find a positive way to sell the negative.

Because it's clear the government has no intention of ending its crackdown on employment insurance fraud, or the house calls to people based solely on the fact that they collect EI.