Old age benefits now slated for cost-cutting by Stephen Harper.

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue Jan 31 2012.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

he great austerity blitz is not going as smoothly as planned.

Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper took his sales pitch for fiscal discipline to an international meeting of political and business leaders in the Swiss town of Davos. He had three objectives: to boast about his exemplary economic stewardship; to scold his European counterparts for their profligacy; and to send a message home that he intends to trim retirement benefits, tighten Canada’s immigration rules and seek more free trade deals.

He ran into resistance on all three fronts:

• His claim that “Canada has economically outperformed most industrialized countries during these recent difficult years” was immediately shot down.

“Canada’s GDP performance is only mediocre when compared to other OECD countries,” argued Jim Stanford, economist for the Canadian Auto Workers. Using statistics published by the Paris-based OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), he showed that Canada ranked 17th of 34 industrialized countries in economic growth between 2007 and 2011.

He acknowledged Canada is in better shape than countries hit by major banking crises. But to portray it as the star of the industrialized world, he said, is simply wrong. “The self-congratulatory tone of so many official economic pronouncements in Canada is clearly unjustified.”

• Harper’s fiscal lecture was greeted by his European hosts with strained silence. Not only did they consider it gauche for a visiting politician to preen at their expense, they didn’t take kindly to being told by the leader of an oil-rich country with a 9.6 per cent poverty rate how to manage their affairs.

• As for the signals the Prime Minister sent back home, the reaction — especially from Canadians approaching retirement — was anger and anxiety. Harper had never mentioned changing the terms of old age security (OAS) in Parliament or any of his public speeches. And he didn’t provide enough detail in Davos for Canadians to revise their financial plans.

The NDP called it “slap in the face to Canadian seniors.” The Liberals pointed out that Harper was cutting seniors’ support rather than curtailing military procurement or rethinking his prison-building scheme.

Pundits speculated about what Harper had in mind: Would he tax back a larger share of old age security from better-off seniors? Raise the eligibility age to 67 or even 70? De-index payments?

On the hotline shows, a tug-of-war erupted between younger callers who didn’t want to pay for baby boomers’ entitlements and older callers who felt the rug had been pulled out from under them.

The Prime Minister may have thought debt-enfeebled Europe, with its cradle-to-grave social programs, would be the perfect backdrop to signal a shift in policy. He might have assumed the economic logic of his stance would be self-evident to Canadians.

What he apparently forgot was that he sought a mandate to govern for the next four years last May without telling voters that re-electing him meant their pensions were vulnerable.

This is not the first post-election surprise the Tories have sprung on Canadians. In December, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty stunned provincial finance ministers by announcing that Ottawa was unilaterally capping its contribution to medicare in 2016. In January, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver announced that he intended to streamline Canada’s environmental review process to speed up energy megaprojects. And this week, he pulled the plug on Ottawa’s home retrofitting program two months early.

Nothing seems safe anymore.

The Prime Minister needn’t worry greatly about ruffled feathers in Europe or dissident economists. The real cost of his lapse into policy-by-fiat is that ordinary Canadians who elected him for his competence now realize they’ve been cut out of decisions affecting their lives.

That’s how a politician turns reasonable citizens into surly voters.

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