Capital Beat column
Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea has taken a major step towards tackling what will likely be perceived by her opponents as her Achilles heel, in next spring federal election – employment insurance.
Traditionally, any party that has changed the employment insurance system (or unemployment insurance as it was once known) has paid a price in the next election when it comes to Atlantic Canada. Despite repeated denials, the Stephen Harper government has tinkered more than most. While some offices that process claims were closed (including one in Montague), more people were hired to enforce the rules.
Now, Shea has effectively split the province in two when it comes to determining benefits – something that has never happened before.
If you live outside the Greater Charlottetown area (defined as the capital city and the two suburban towns of Stratford and Cornwall) you will now be eligible to draw benefits longer than those living in three of the four largest communities in the province. Summerside, the largest community in Shea’s Egmont riding, will be considered rural for EI purposes.
The move may help mitigate the damage from a radio interview last year, when the province’s representative in the federal cabinet essentially said she had no problem with people moving off P.E.I. to find work. She was reacting to the last population figures from Statistics Canada showing 1,100 more people left the Island last year than moved here.
She justified the recent change to EI by saying that between 2011 and last year, the unemployment rate was five percentage points lower in the capital region than the rest of the province. Starting last April, the unemployment rate in the region where the applicant lived became a major factor in the calculation.
Essentially, that means fewer weeks of employment earnings are used in the benefits calculation for regions of high unemployment. That tends to boost benefit payments in high unemployment areas, and decrease them in low unemployment areas.
"With this change, we are making the system more fair and equitable for Islanders living in rural areas.” she said. “They will have access to improved benefits, similar to Canadians in other rural communities across the country."
She is sure to tell voters on the doorstep next May that she fought hard for the change. She will reassure them it is another example of the strong representation people can expect if they return her to Parliament.
Her opponents are likely to point out she was part of the government that changed the system in the first place and she was an enthusiastic supporter of the changes.
We won’t know until after the polls close next May which narrative voters choose to believe. However, there is no question the move increased her chances for a third term. By contrast, her running mates in the Greater Charlottetown area may hear a few complaints at the door.