Stop delaying on pension reform

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Fri Mar 12 2010

For a federal government that credits itself with a mastery of financial matters, it is difficult to fathom why the Conservatives keep running away from the perennial issue of pension reform.

The budget was virtually silent on one of the most vexing issues of our time. Now, there are signs that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will set up yet another consultation exercise in the coming days to seek feedback – online and offline, but very much behind the times.

This latest gambit comes on the heels of last year’s cross-Canada road show – fronted by Flaherty’s Parliamentary Secretary, MP Ted Menzies – which operated from the sidelines and gained remarkably little traction. How much longer is Ottawa determined to delay?

With the federal government wavering, there is a growing clamour for pan-Canadian leadership that would forge a consensus at the highest levels: a national pension summit that would bring together the first ministers, the labour movement and industry experts to debate suggestions such as an expanded Canada Pension Plan.

Much of the pressure comes from the grassroots, and that in turn is being expressed by the provincial premiers who have been leading the campaign for pension reform. Ideas have been bubbling up from Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, which undertook their own comprehensive reviews of the perilous state of pensions even before the Great Recession of 2008.

In the period since, the bitter lesson has been driven home to Canadians that existing retirement savings are all too vulnerable to the vagaries of the stock market and the laws of corporate bankruptcies. For the one in four workers without an employer-sponsored pension plan, Ottawa’s disengagement is puzzling. At a meeting of federal and provincial ministers held in Whitehorse last December – about as far out of sight as possible – Ottawa tried to paint a picture of relative calm and tranquility on the pension front.

The next such meeting is scheduled for May, but the time for plodding consultations is past. The Western provinces are expressing impatience, while Ontario is repeating its call for coordinated national action rather than a patchwork quilt of pension reforms.

It took political will to design and implement the CPP in the 1960s, and it took decisive action to reform its funding mechanisms in the 1990s. Now, the onus is on Ottawa to show truly national leadership to build on that foundation.

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