By Bill Curry
Last fall’s Liberal Party election platform is an obvious guide as to what the budget will contain. But much has changed since Oct. 19. Economists have repeatedly lowered their forecasts for economic growth and, as a result, the size of next year’s federal deficit is now expected to be three times as large as what the Liberals promised during the campaign.
That economic reality places Finance Minister Bill Morneau in a bind. Will he deliver on all of the party’s spending promises or put some on hold in order to diminish the sticker shock of an expanding federal deficit?
One of the most challenging policy files for the federal government will be delivering on promises to reform Employment Insurance. Alberta is looking for changes that will make the program more accessible to the province’s recently unemployed. Atlantic Canada’s Liberal MPs want an end to 2012 reforms that restricted access to the program for repeat users. Business groups are cautioning that the program should not provide disincentives to work and that premiums should be kept low.
Changes to EI must also be considered in light of the government’s plans to reform the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council recently issued a report warning that labour shortages are costing the agriculture sector $1.5-billion a year in lost sales and production. Producers want exemptions to some of the foreign worker rules brought in under the Conservatives in 2014.
“It is a public policy minefield,” said John Williamson, a former New Brunswick Conservative MP who is now vice-president of research at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. Mr. Williamson said that in Atlantic Canada, some businesses view the EI system as a source of competition in their effort to attract workers.
“This issue boils down to one of workers on one hand, versus companies trying to source more labour. There are some competing interests there, which is what makes it so difficult,” he said.