Harper’s pension reform moves breed needless resentment

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Feb 02 2012.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Most Canadians would be willing to discuss the retirement age, if they were asked.

But they weren’t.

The country’s basic pension program, Old Age Security, was launched 60 years ago when the average worker’s lifespan was 68.5 years. Today it’s 81.4 years.

Several western countries — Germany, Norway, the United States — have already raised their retirement ages. So there was nothing radical or groundbreaking about the reform Stephen Harper announced at a meeting of international decision-makers in Europe last week.

What was disturbing was the way the Prime Minister sprang the imperative of reducing seniors’ benefits on an unwary public, with no national debate, no explanation for its sudden urgency and no chance to consider alternatives.

Likewise, most Canadians would be open to adjusting the way immigrants are selected, if they were asked.

But they weren’t.

It makes no sense to keep recruiting highly educated professionals (who end up driving taxis because their qualifications aren’t recognized) and rejecting skilled tradespeople (whom employers are eager to hire).

But every change creates winners and losers. Canadians want an immigration system that balances the needs of economic migrants, new citizens seeking to reunite their families, refugees fleeing persecution and native-born Canadians competing for jobs.

Rather than working with these groups, Harper announced in Europe that his government would move unilaterally. “We will undertake a significant reform of our immigration system,” he said.

Most Canadians would be willing to revise environmental procedures, if they were asked.

But they weren’t.

There has to be a better way of protecting the ecosystem than holding hearings that drag on for years, cost taxpayers billions of dollars and encourage opponents of development to round up a long list of witnesses, all making the same point.

But Harper doesn’t want ideas. He wants a quick, made-in-Ottawa solution.

The Prime Minister can do all this — and more. He has a parliamentary majority. What he can’t do is stop Canadians from questioning his rationale (numerous actuarial reports show Old Age Security is affordable); questioning his motives (streamlined environmental rules would help oil producers); and questioning his trustworthiness (despite his claims to the contrary, immigrants fear he will restrict the intake of “non-productive’ newcomers such as grandparents, siblings and refugees.)

At the moment, voters’ options are limited. They can mount protests, circulate petitions and generate negative publicity, but none of these has deterred Harper in the past.

The more immediate challenge is to halt the spread of undemocratic practices to other levels of government.

Take Ontario, for example. Premier Dalton McGuinty, in a deft end-run around voters, appointed a panel of experts after last fall’s election to come up with a sweeping plan to cut provincial costs. The four-member commission, headed by former bank executive and federal bureaucrat Don Drummond, is to report this month.

Drummond answers to the premier, not the people. It is not clear what principles he has applied or how he weighed the needs of various groups. It is not clear whether his blueprint will be open to public debate.

McGuinty, unlike Harper, does not have a legislative majority. Conscious of his own vulnerability and public restiveness, the premier announced this week that his government would hold a series of telephone town hall sessions on its 2012 budget.

Then there is Mayor Rob Ford. He bullies or bulldozes anyone who gets in his way. It worked for about a year. Then a moderate group of city councillors, prodded by angry Torontonians, found their spines. They opposed most of the spending cuts in Ford’s 2012 budget and rallied enough votes to win.

Now they are challenging his legal right to scrap provincially approved transit improvements in favour of subways. The mayor says he won’t budge. Nothing will happen till this test of wills is resolved.

Across jurisdictions, political leaders seem to have forgotten their authority comes from the people. They don’t bother to listen, explain, persuade or look for a consensus. They simply pronounce.

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