Monday, April 23, 2012


By now, readers of this blog will know that our campaign believes that jobs and hope should be the central issue for Liberals in the next election. The Alward Conservatives released, as far as I can remember or have been told, the only budget I've ever seen that admits right in its text that the budget will cause higher unemployment and slower economic growth. It has never been clear to me how Conservatives believe a deficit gets reduced when fewer people work and companies make less money and thus all pay fewer taxes -- but at least they are honest that they are willing to slow the economy and kill jobs as a tenet of their economic plan. We should celebrate these moments of honesty from them, as it is a welcome change from the campaign past and likely the campaign to come. Last month our campaign released a jobs plan that could be funded strictly by using existing funds in a smarter way. Now, let's get the debate started on a new way to prevent unemployment without adding to the deficit. It's time for a new approach to Employment Insurance, and a new partnership with the federal government. One of the other candidates, Mike Murphy, has been calling for a stronger assertion of our interests with Ottawa, and on several planks of his platform we agree, such as protecting Old Age Security. (I cannot rate Mr. Gallant's policy in this regard as he has said he wants to delay policy debates until he becomes leader, but I will say that before we give a leader and his advisors the power to make the final call on policy, candidates should give you some sense of which ideas and values they are hearing that they like and dislike. Parties have gotten into trouble electing a tabla rasa only to find out later which people the leader is listening to). That said, it is high time that New Brunswick make the Employment Insurance surplus a key issue before that surplus is whittled away in the tired debate between increasing benefits and cutting premiums. The real problem with both approaches is that help only arrives once people have lost their job. But an even better way to insure against unemployment is to keep it from happening in the first place. If New Brunswick asked Ottawa to return half of our share of the Employment Insurance surplus, we could use it to establish a Life Long Learning Fund. Here's how it would work. If you've paid into EI and made no claims in five years, you can use some of the money to upgrade your skills. It could be adding a certification in a trade, go toward a part-time degree program that will open up new opportunities, or even to literacy or second language training if that makes you more employable. Like EI, the LLF would work on a cost-recovery basis. The old way of looking at education was that you went to school, graduated at 18, chose the program that got you into the career you wanted, and by age 22 school was just a thing you looked back upon fondly in yearbooks. Today, that just isn't so. If you looked at the ten most recruited jobs in 2008, seven of them didn't even exist in 1998. That's how quickly skills can change. And New Brunswick has a lot of employees who are in jobs that made good financial sense when they took them, but now are at high risk of vanishing. We have too many families who live in daily fear of the nightmare economic scenario -- you're in your late 40s and your job disappears, you're not trained to do anything else, and you owe money on a home in a town where property values are falling. Employment Insurance is about trying to solve that problem once you are there--and it often fails to do that. The LLF would allow people to avoid it altogether. Adopting a Life Long Learning Fund would make us more competitive in attracting jobs as well. Companies with long-term growth strategies like to set up shop in provinces that make a commitment to skills that adapt to the pace of economic change today. Adopting a job-friendly agenda isn't about raising spending. Like the jobs plan we've proposed,the LLF is about using money that's already in the system smarter. The Alward government wants us to believe that New Brunswick has lost 5000 jobs under their watch because money is in short supply. In fact, most jurisdictions in Canada have seen employment rebound in spite of deficits. It's creativity that is truly in short supply under this government -- and Liberals can win when we offer a real alternative.

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