Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hello, anybody home? It's your EI worker calling

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Has the Harper government no sense of irony?

Can it not see how absurd it looks to send EI workers out on house calls at the same time as it's closing EI offices across the country?

Sadly, the reason civil servants are now dropping in unannounced on unemployed workers has nothing to do with improved customer service. About 50 federal employees have been seconded to an audit of the EI program, involving 1,200 randomly selected recipients. The bureaucrats' role appears to consist of hand-delivering instructions to show up at regularly scheduled EI interviews.

How this will help root out fraudsters -- who, according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, are costing the system hundreds of millions of dollars -- remains a mystery. What are house calls supposed to prove? That if you find someone at home in the middle of the afternoon, they aren't really on the job hunt? That's asinine.

It's also asinine to throw fuel on the fire of the social unrest that is brewing in the wake of recent changes to the EI rules, which require recipients to travel farther afield and to accept lower-paying jobs. Protests are proliferating in regions that rely heavily on seasonal industries, including New Brunswick and Quebec. Thousands of people are feeling insecure. Must they feel intimidated as well?

The Conservatives may truly believe an overhaul of the EI system is necessary and they are demonstrating political courage. The problem with their approach is that it pushes us further down the road of micro-managing people's lives by making all kinds of judgments about whether individual EI recipients are making sufficient efforts to rise above their personal circumstances.

Political courage should be put in the service of a bigger idea than that. On a visit to Sydney. N.S., last week, interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae hinted at a different vision that may find its way into the party's platform in 2014.

The idea of a guaranteed annual income (GAI) is neither new, nor is it a Liberal light bulb per se. Robert Stanfield advocated a "negative income tax" in the 1960s and so have modern-day conservatives. The general idea is that all citizens should be entitled to some basic income from the government, without preconditions, and that all existing social welfare programs, including EI, would be collapsed into the GAI. One of the obvious advantages would be a streamlined administration -- far fewer bureaucrats and none that would be in your face, or at your door, asking you to justify your actions or lack thereof.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 26, 2013 A11

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