Canada’s poor seniors targeted by Tory OAP cutbacks, CARP says

Published in the Vancouver Observer | February 22, 2012 | Circulation 115,000 unique monthly visitors

Canada’s advocacy group for seniors is crying foul after another Conservative government announcement on old age pensions yesterday revealed… nothing new at all.

During a highly anticipated pensions speech yesterday, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley added her weight to an increasingly cloudy debate on changes to Canada’s Old Age Security (OAS) system, the latest since Prime Minister Stephen Harper boasted of coming reforms to stave off costs in Davos, Switzerland several weeks ago.

“They are manufacturing a crisis,” said Susan Eng, advocacy vice president of CARP: A New Vision of Aging, in an extensive interview with the Vancouver Observer. “I am disappointed they would treat an important issue like this.

“There’s absolutely no need for them to do it this way… reciting the same basic talking points which have not been accepted by people. Because the government has not given any real details, everybody is guessing. Our members and others like them are fearing the worst.”

CARP (formerly the Canadian Association of Retired Persons) has launched a “Hands Off OAS” campaign, and said that cuts to pensions – speculated to include extending the retirement age from 65 to 67 – will hurt the poorest Canadians, many of whom are seniors. According to CARP, 250,000 seniors fall into the low-income rate.

The latest salvo in the pensions controversy came after Finley defended her government’s as-yet undefined pension reform – namely, a coming wave of retiring Baby Boomers, demographic shifts, and escalating costs to the system – at a major speech Tuesday before the Canadian Club in Toronto.

Seniors outraged over erosion of safety net
Implicitly addressing critics like CARP and the New Democratic Party(NDP), Finley insisted that pension reform “is not a crisis we invented” – but the bulk of her speech seemed aimed at younger Canadians, not current retirees who the government said will be unaffected.

The government has asserted that OAS costs will skyrocket from today’s $36 billion to $108 billion by 2030.

“People who are middle age and younger today … can be assured that they will have these social programs properly funded, fiscally responsible, that they’ll be there for them in the future,” she told the Canada Club audience, which included Eng. “It’s the next generations of Canadians who will have to shoulder the burden,” she said. “The next generations who will have their own families to raise, their own mortgages to pay, their own student and household debt to manage.

“Inaction is simply not an option. Something must be done.”

In earlier comments by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, he suggested that pension changes would not kick in until at least 2020, but Flaherty’s staffers subsequently clarified the record that earlier pension reformsmay be in the works. By contrast, Finley said the upcoming budget will begin the reforms.

“Although policy hasn’t yet been announced, I can tell you that the upcoming budget will ensure steps to protect retirement income,” she said. “I personally assure that there will be no changes for seniors currently collecting benefits. Nor will there be any impacts for anyone close to retirement.”

But CARP members – who are primarily but not exclusively retired – are on the whole outraged, according to internal polls cited by Eng.

“For lower-income people, this is going to have a massive impact,” she said. “(The Conservatives) say nothing about protecting them, even though they’ve had ample opportunity; it’s been three weeks since they dropped the bombshell (in Davos).

“The ones hurt most by this change are low-income people who are just hanging on. (Seniors) know how much it takes to make ends meet – they don’t want this effected for their children and grandchildren. This is the population that grew up in the ’60s and ’70s – they care about Canada’s social safety net.”

Conservative supporters angry over pension change

According to a recent CARP member poll – which was designed by a professional pollster but conducted internally, Eng said – 59.9 per cent of respondents said that pushing retirement back two years would make them vote against the Conservatives in the next election, despite 70 per cent of respondents listing themselves as already-retired and the majority of them Conservative voters in the first place.

“Our crowd are solid Conservative supporters,” Eng added. “(They’re) the section of the population that normally votes Conservative. You can’t say this is a crazy lefty rag.

“Because there’s no election in near future, the issue of whether this will change votes might seem moot. But given this is such a serious issue, people have long memories.”

CARP, which is headed by MuchMusic-founder and media businessman Moses Znaimer, is not about to hit the streets, Eng said. Its members are, however, writing letters to the government and keeping close watch on the government to gauge its next move.

“I’m not saying we’re pulling out the placards,” Eng joked. “But let’s get real here: if you’re going to make a fundamental changes … put it to the people, let us have all the facts.

“It’s not supposed to be a one way conversation.”

So far, however, no details of changes to pensions have been revealed, despite escalating tensions between Parliamentary Budget OfficerKevin Page – who publicly contradicted government claims that pensions have become financially unsustainable.

Meanwhile, why Ottawa continues making vague defences of policies not even revealed remains a mystery for Eng and other advocates at CARP.

“I think they did it because they thought they could do it,” she said. “They thought they could power it through.

“(Harper) was so sure he could get it through he announced it in Davos. They really thought this was a slam dunk.”

Old Age Security benefits are given to 98 per cent of Canadians over 65, up to a maximum of $540.12 per month. The amount is cancelled for those making more than $112,772 a year. It accounts for 13 per cent of average income for seniors aged 65-69.

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