Harper can still learn from Mulroney on Old Age Security

“Health regions with life expectancies lower than the Canadian average share similar characteristics. They tend to have higher levels of long-term unemployment, lower proportions of high school and university graduates, smaller immigrant populations, larger Aboriginal populations and rural/remote locations.  The association between these characteristics and low life expectancy has been documented in prior research.”

This is a quote from Statistics Canada that I thought would be useful to frame a debate about the future of Canada’s Old Age Security program.  When Stephen Harper spoke about the need to reform OAS in Davos, Switzerland he opened a debate that hasn’t raged since Brian Mulroney tried to de-index the program in 1985.  The backlash and potential for huge political cost helped him reconsider the wisdom of his ways.

You are about to hear a lot about how Canada’s seniors are living longer than ever, which is good and true.  You will hear how there will be more elderly Canadians than ever living these long lives and overloading Old Age Security, which is not necessarily true at all.  In fact, the Canadians described above, those with the shorter life expectancy, are most likely to require Old Age Security.  They are less likely to have generous pensions – if any at all – than the Canadians who will live longer than their ancestors.   We should consider that when we consider the future of our social safety net.

One idea making the rounds is raising the age of eligibility from 65 to 67.  The proponents of this idea either do not understand the basic demographic the program is serving or don’t care.  The issue is not about making professionals retire at 65.  It is about forcing workers to plug away for two more years before qualifying for the program they rely on to be able to retire at all.  

Let’s be frank in our conversation about changes to Old Age Security if we are to undertake this discussion now.  We cannot debate the nature of the program without acknowledging who the recipients really are.   Old Age Security is designed to keep seniors from living in abject poverty.   It is clawed back from those seniors deemed to be living well above the poverty line.  These facts seem to be missing from the talking points making the rounds on the government bench.

New Democrats campaigned on the reality of seniors’ poverty and with specific platform planks to address it.  Stephen Harper didn’t.   Brian Mulroney managed to survive his “good bye Charlie Brown” moment although he won fewer votes and seats in the next election.  How Stephen Harper manages to put the genie back in the bottle will likely have a lot to do with his fate because the fate of so many others is tied up in this debate.