EI Politics

A hallmark of Michael Ignatieff so far as Liberal leader, both actual and interim, has been his penchant to transactional politics; he has so far picked his battles on small and short term policy differences rather that outlining a long-term plan. At the Liberal convention which concluded yesterday in Vancouver, Ignatieff did not spell out his demands, policy outlook or election warnings to the government in his convention speech, he felt that such minor details would be more appropriate for a press conference proceeding the event. Despite his insistence that he will be a transformative visionary leader that is looking forward to shaping Canada over the next eight years through 2017, it is not too credible when Ignatieff’s Canadian hindsight only extends back just five. The latest election threat (but not necessarily an election) is his insistence that the Prime Minister look at EI reform to temporarily extend benefits to workers who have worked 360 hours and to harmonize standards for EI benefits across jurisdictions.

The history of EI in this country has been quite tumultuous for parties that have manipulated it, back to RB Bennett who proposed it, to Trudeau who vastly expanded it to Mulroney and Chretien who subsequently slashed it to Martin who allowed EI surpluses to balloon under his watch. Ironically, it was Chretien in 1995 that changed the standards of EI payments to reflect local unemployment rates breaking down benefits by region. Though all of Canadians pay into EI, the benefits distributed are dependent upon local employment rates. Thus, EI is sort of like equalization but for jobs.

“It seems unfair to Canadians that if you pay into the thing, your eligibility depends on where you live. We think 360 (hours) is roughly where we ought to be.” — Michael Ignatieff

Now Mr. Ignatieff is proposing that we do away with regional differences and temporarily make EI more generous. An election threat from Ignatieff does not ring in the ears of the Prime Minister today after the Liberal leader put the screws to the Liberal senate to pass the Conservative budget just months ago — a budget, which among other things, included a global five-week extension of EI benefits despite region.

What Mr. Ignatieff may instead be attempting is to wrestle an easy “concession” from the Conservative government in order to show that he intends on making Parliament work while boasting that he will decide the timing of its dissolution. EI may indeed be an important policy issue for the Liberal leader to champion as for deregionalizing the program would be beneficial for Ontario, a province that disproportionately pays into it for the benefits received. As Ignatieff is looking to regain Ontario seats lost under the wayward leadership of Stephane Dion, the new Liberal leader may figure that he can shore up his Ontario base and challenge Stephen Harper where the Conservative Prime Minister needs to grow.

Yet today, a spoiler appeared on the scene. Ontario PC leadership candidate Christine Elliott and wife of federal finance minister Jim Flaherty also declared that the EI program was ineffective and unfair for Ontario. Elliott proposed reforming the program to benefit a fairer proportion of out-of-work Ontarians considering the number of the province’s residents pay into it. If EI cannot be reformed, Elliott suggests, Ontario should opt-out of the program. Does this signal a tag-team effort by federal and provincial Conservative forces to deflate Ignatieff’s election threat? Christine Elliott may be serving as a safety valve to deflate Ignatieff by suggesting that a friendly to the Conservative government is advocating a similar position. If a June election is contingent upon EI reform for Ontario, Elliott may be providing the Conservatives cover should they move forward with reform and it would have the added benefit of splitting credit from Ignatieff.

Frank Klees interview

Frank Klees is running for the leadership of the PC Party of Ontario and took some time to chat with me today about what his bid means and where Ontario needs to go given the tough economic times and new taxation structure being implemented by Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty. Frank also discusses specific policy measures that he would or would not implement.

Related: Tim Hudak interview, Christine Elliott interview, Randy Hillier interview

Randy Hillier knows how to handle a wedge

Randy Hillier has been putting out some very “debate-able” policy during this campaign. I’d like to see more discussion and debate from the candidates on where they’d like to take the PC Party in the future. Unfortunately, the main motivation for the leadership candidates at this point is membership sales and perhaps some candidates see that a policy discussion would cause too much differentiation and rock the boat when it comes to signing up potential members.

Randy Hillier has already announced a number of policies. This unusual strategy is likely being executed so that Randy can gain more media attention as he is the underdog in this race. Ending the ban on the spring bear hunt, electing our senators from Ontario, abolishing the Human Rights Commissions and proposing a Freedom of Association and Conscience Act are just a few policies that Hillier has mixed into the race.

I’ve learned that Hillier will soon be announcing a policy to rename the party. That’s right. Instead of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, Hillier proposes that we rename it the Conservative Party of Ontario. This is sure to ruffle some feathers in the party as there is a strong red Tory element to the PC Party but personally, I’ve always thought the term “Progressive Conservative” was like apologizing with the first breath of your introduction. The name also implies that you want to be all things to all people rather than standing firm on your principles. “Conservative? Oh, don’t worry, we’re ‘progressive’ too!” Our strategy should be to win swing voters. “Progressive”, in the modern context, has increased in its partisan undertones as “liberals” in the United States have rebranded as “progressives”.

What do you think? Should we rename the party?

And then there were three

Christine Elliott is the latest to announce her entry into the Ontario PC leadership race following Frank Klees and Randy Hillier.  Elliott announced on Twitter just after midnight earlier this morning and will be doing some press soon to give detail of her plans.

I met Elliott just last weekend as she stopped by Ottawa to measure support for a potential bid.  I asked if she could differentiate herself from the other candidates and she replied, in obvious reference to Tim Hudak, that she’s not a career politician and that she brings “real-world” experience to the race.  Asked for an example of a public policy initiative she would highlight should she lead the opposition in Queen’s Park she replied that the PC Party should emphasize its strength on its mental health strategy for Ontario.  As for education which became the biggest snag for the party led by John Tory during the last election, Elliott conceded that vouchers and charter school would likely be off the table as something the party should champion over the coming years.

Randy Hillier also announced this week and exploded out of the gate with a very professional Hopey-Changey-styled website that emphasized three distinct policies that the former head of the Lanark Landowners Association would strive for in Ontario’s public policy debate.  Abolishment of the Human Rights Commission, Senate elections for Ontario and a “Freedom of Association and Conscience Act” (allowing individuals to opt out of activities in their professions which they find morally objectionable) are the policy initiatives that Hillier will be selling at the doors over the next three (three?!) months.  It is rumoured (though with some suspicion) that Hillier has already sold 2500 memberships.

Frank Klees, perhaps sensing that Hillier was set to announce on Monday, did his best to preempt the announcement by letting his intentions be known on Sunday.  The former Harris cabinet minister and well-liked caucus member disappointed some as he launched without much fanfare or campaign.

Another former Harris cabinet minister is also set to announce though it is unknown as to when.  The perceived (self-styled) front-runner of the race is Tim Hudak, who also has the backing of the former premier.  I attended a breakfast meeting with Hudak a few weeks ago and it’s not much of a scoop to tell you that he is lining up for a serious bid.  Asked then if he’d be announcing soon, he replied that for now he’s only encouraging a dialogue on the future direction of the party.  Of course, he’ll be entering soon, but he’s holding off for strategic reasons.  Like Fred Thompson in the 2008 GOP bid for nomination, an unannounced perceived front-runner can keep his name in the gossip of partisans and media alike by keeping the will-he-or-won’t-he chatter going, though like Thompson, withholding does not necessarily protect a candidate from flopping.  Though his allies in the party executive have engineered a short race in his favour, Hudak will still have to contend among a field of strong candidates.

Conservative staffers in Ottawa are split between Elliott, who is also the wife of federal finance minister Jim Flaherty, and Hillier who carries the true-blue banner of provincial conservatism for many in this town.  Many of the old pros and much of the provincial party establishment are lining up behind Hudak while the new pros are putting their chips on Elliott.

Ontario PC Leadership race details

I’m receiving word from senior sources who are discussing the future of the Ontario PC Party right now. At the moment, leader John Tory is in a caucus meeting now discussing what he’ll be talking about at his presser at 2pm.

The party is pushing for a leadership election to occur the second weekend of September (see update). The thinking is that this best time that won’t interfere with a potential federal election.

There’s a special executive meeting to be held on Monday to discuss process and to have an interim leader in place by the end of March.

UPDATE: Now I’m hearing that June is a possible for the leadership election. We’ll know more details on Monday. June sounds a bit early for the number of candidates that are thinking of entering and there is no sense of urgency for June.