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Harper pushes slam-the-poor agenda

February 2012

Now that he’s got a majority in the House of Commons, the real Stephen Harper—he of the oft-mentioned “hidden agenda”—is emerging. His Conservative government is beginning to ram through policies that most urban Canadians, especially Montrealers, oppose.

We’re talking about the law-and-order agenda and the prospect of stiffer sentences instead of more resources for rehabilitation at a time when the rate of violent crime is steadily decreasing.

We’re talking about the debate Harper initiated to increase the eligibility age for the guaranteed income supplement to 67 from 65, which will hurt the most vulnerable and force many to work when they need and deserve to retire in basic dignity.

A recent survey by the Canadian Association of Retired Persons found almost two-thirds of respondents opposed the shift. This is understandable, given that universal old-age security itself is clawed back from higher-income individuals.

Harper’s argument, that the cost of old-age security will balloon to more than $100 billion in 2030 from less than $40 billion today, does not take inflation into account, argues economist Monica Townson of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Total annual expenditures on the old-age security programs are expected to increase to $110 billion by 2030, representing 3.1 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with 2.2 per cent in 2007. However, she wrote, “because benefits are indexed to inflation, which is assumed to be lower than the rate of growth in both the GDP and the income of new retirees, the amount of income-tested benefits will also be reduced.”

To Townson, and other economists, Harper’s so-called “sustainability” crisis really is one of declining benefits for seniors in “real” dollars, not one of paying to maintain the program.

There are demographic challenges: Canadians are living longer—average life expectancy for males is 79, compared with 68 in 1966. This means
increased health costs, and on paper fewer under-65 working Canadians to sustain social program.

However, as research prepared at Ottawa’s request has shown, Canada spends far less than the average Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development country on public pensions; our relatively high level of immigration will partially offset the distortions of an aging population; a crisis is not as imminent here as among eurozone nations because Canadians tend to save more through RRSPs and workplace pension plans.

As Harperite storm clouds darken, it is refreshing to observe the federal Liberal Party rebuilding and renewing itself with such bold policies as one to decriminalize marijuana, passed at the recent Liberal Party policy conference in Ottawa. It signals a willingness to present ideas that contrast with Harper’s destructive omnibus crime bill.

Interim leader Bob Rae is performing well and the party could do a lot worse than choose him as the permanent head.

Once the New Democratic Party chooses a new leader next month, many of its most articulate spokespersons will be back in the House of Commons to promote alternatives to the unfortunate direction the Harperites are taking the country. Stay tuned.



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