10/03/2013 10:15 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Hal Perry, Former P.E.I. Tory Leader, Joins Liberals Over Ottawa's EI Policies


CHARLOTTETOWN - A former leader of the Opposition Progressive Conservatives in Prince Edward Island has crossed the floor to join the Liberal government, saying he's frustrated by the party's lack of opposition to Ottawa's employment insurance rules.

Hal Perry, the member of the legislature for Tignish-Palmer in western P.E.I., made the announcement Thursday.

Perry said people working in fishing, farming and tourism in his rural riding have been coming to him with desperate accounts of lost or decreased benefits as winter approaches.

"I brought my concerns forward to my caucus, but they were falling on deaf ears," he said in a telephone interview. "I was left with no other alternative but to go to a party that offered some hope to people in my district."

Perry, who has been a Tory member of the legislature for two years, said he has heard from many constituents who faced hardship over the winter due to reduced incomes. Some are choosing to leave the province, he added.

"We rely on a seasonal economy and people were reliant on that to get them through and to survive year-round. These impacts are having a huge impact on Islanders," he said.

A recent Statistics Canada report showed the number of Islanders receiving benefits was down 16 per cent in July compared to a year earlier — almost triple the national average.

The federal Conservative government has said EI changes implemented in January are a reasonable effort to ensure the system is fair and flexible.

Ottawa has said the adjustments do not change eligibility requirements, such as the number of insured hours to qualify, but do make clear that recipients are to continue searching for a job while collecting benefits.

The rules require people to look for employment and be willing to travel up to one hour for the work. EI officers are permitted to take personal circumstances into account, such as availability of public transportation and access to child care.

Perry also had conflicts with the party prior to his defection Thursday.

The former civil servant briefly led the Opposition in the legislature for several weeks after Olive Crane resigned her position earlier this year.

However, after the party executive chose Steven Myers as interim leader of the party, Perry said he was pressured to step aside despite enjoying support from other members of the five-person caucus.

"They were ruthless in their ways to try to get someone in there they could manipulate and control and I wasn't that person," he said.

Premier Robert Ghiz said he started talking with Perry two weeks ago about the possibility of switching sides.

"We're an open party. ... He seemed like a good fit and I let him know we operate as a team," he said.

"Our caucus welcomed him with open arms."

Perry's defection will give the Liberals 23 seats in the legislature, while the Tories will have four.

— By Michael Tutton in Halifax

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the premier held talks with Perry nine months ago.

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