09/09/2015 11:11 EDT | Updated 09/09/2016 05:12 EDT

Harper Sticks By EI Plan As Trudeau Vows Changes

Harper describes the Liberal plan as a payroll tax hike.

WELLAND, Ont. — Conservative Leader Stephen Harper criticized his Liberal rival's plan for the employment insurance regime on Wednesday, accusing Justin Trudeau of wanting to reverse the government's planned premium cuts.

A day earlier, Trudeau announced a Liberal government would reduce EI payroll premiums to $1.65 for every $100 in earnings from the current $1.88. That's not as steep as the cut to $1.49 by 2017 announced by the Conservatives in the 2015 budget.

Trudeau said the additional money in the EI fund would be used for various measures, including shortening the wait time for getting a first cheque, as well as reducing the number of days a person has to work before becoming eligible.

"There are various ways we can improve the employment insurance system, various ways we can improve benefits for people who aren't working," Harper said at an Ontario Chamber of Commerce event.

"In our view, the fundamental role of a government isn't to figure out how to pay unemployed people, it's how to make sure we get people working. That's the difference."

Outside, about 20 protesters associated with the Seafarers International Union of Canada picketed on the street. They are currently asking a judge in Vancouver to review temporary worker permits granted to foreign sailors on international ships that have operated in Canadian waters.

The union has said that while local sailors are out of work, foreign-flagged ships travelling between Canadian ports are bringing in foreign workers and paying them less.

Harper was asked a number of economic questions at the Q&A event with the chamber, moderated by president Allan O'Dette.

The prime minister said he was proud of his government's record in a range of areas, from support for tourism, to infrastructure spending and trade deals.

O'Dette asked him about major infrastructure projects, including the development of the Ring of Fire chromite deposits in Northern Ontario, which would mean equipment manufacturing jobs in the south.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has committed $1 billion to building infrastructure around the project and has called on Ottawa to match that.

Harper repeated his campaign promise to extend the Mining Exploration Tax Credit, but did not go into specifics about funding for Ring of Fire.

"We've established these big infrastructure funds, the gas tax fund, the provincial and national Building Canada Fund components and most of the projects are done in collaboration with the provinces," Harper said.

"They do a lot of the prioritizing of the projects and we've certainly invited them to prioritize the Ring of Fire. At the same time, look, I hope those will be the priorities we will move forward on."

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