BOUCTOUCHE, N.B. — The federal Liberals are promising sweeping changes to the employment insurance system, including a reduction in premiums, though they won't cut as much as what the Conservatives have promised.
The change would see EI premiums drop to $1.65 per $100 earned from $1.88. That's less than the $1.49 rate that the Tories committed to in the 2015 budget.
The Conservative move, which would come into effect in 2017 — the same year as the Liberal vow — would create what the Tories argued was a "break even" system with the government, bringing in only what it needed to cover the cost of the EI program.
Anything collected above that amount would lead to further rate reductions, the Conservatives say.
Justin Trudeau said Tuesday a Liberal government would reinvest the extra $2 billion in revenue between the two EI premium figures, with an extra $500 million per year to the provinces for skills training.
The Liberals would also help reduce wait times for a first EI payment to one week from two at a cost of $710 million, he said.
Trudeau is also promising to eliminate a rule that requires new workers or those re-entering the workforce after a two-year absence to work at least 910 hours before they become eligible for EI. Instead, the threshold would be set regionally.
All the changes would come into effect in the 2017 calendar year and cost about $1.75 billion, not including the $2 billion the Liberals plan to reinvest, Trudeau said.
"EI is not meant to be a profit centre for the government," Trudeau said. "EI is meant to help people through difficult times, help them through difficult periods, so that they can get back to work."
Trudeau, however, wavered when asked whether he would commit to not using the EI fund to balance the federal budget, a move the Conservatives and past Liberal governments have used when the fund was in surplus.
The spot the Liberals chose to make their announcement has the worst unemployment rate of the three economic zones in New Brunswick. Data compiled by Employment and Social Development Canada shows the region's unemployment rate is 16 per cent.
The Liberals are hoping the promise of improved EI benefits boosts their electoral chances in a province where they only hold one seat and the Tories have eight.
Tory changes to the EI system have angered many small communities that depend on the social safety program to help seasonal workers.
The province's Liberal premier said the 2012 changes prompted many New Brunswickers to head west for work, believing they couldn't make a living in Atlantic Canada.
Brian Gallant said the changes also hurt his government's bottom line.
"I think it makes sense to reverse them," Gallant said Tuesday of the Conservative changes to EI.
Gallant said he didn't think the diminished cut to premiums that Trudeau is promising would hurt small businesses who have long argued that higher rates hurt their ability to grow. He said there wouldn't be "as much of a shock value" as small businesses would expect.
Earlier in the day, Trudeau held a rally in Amherst, N.S., where he was peppered with questions about the possibility of a coalition government, should no party win a majority next month.
Trudeau said Canadians don't want a formal coalition if a party wins a minority government after the election.
Trudeau was campaigning alongside Bill Casey, the Liberal candidate for the Nova Scotia riding of Cumberland-Colchester.
Casey is a former Conservative MP who was expelled from the party in 2007 when he voted against the federal budget. At the time, Casey said he felt the budget would harm his province's ability to secure revenues from the oil and gas sector.
His decision to stand up to Harper earned him cult-like status in the province. In 2008, he won the riding as an Independent, taking almost 70 per cent of the votes.