Binkley Report — This is good strategy?

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst. Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ... 

The Binkley Report

On pensioners: This is good strategy?

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

Back in his minority government days, Prime Minister Harper liked to brag about being a superb political strategist.

So who was the guy that used his moment in the spotlight as the leader of one of the world’s healthier economies at the World Economic Forum in Davos to fire up his critics back home with ill-chosen words about pension reform? Maybe he thought his speech would sound stirring in front of the other leaders.

All it did was energize his political opponents who could cite it as another example of the Conservatives' hidden agenda. It didn’t help that it took so long for his apologists to say he wasn’t targeting the Canada Pension Plan, but Ottawa’s two supplementary offerings-Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement.

In the end, he had to back off farther and say “seniors will continue to receive everything they are receiving and expecting.”

The NDP and Liberals have had a field day attacking his announcement, much like the Conservatives used to do when they were in opposition. Harper brought every sting and jab down on himself.

Liberal Leader Bob Rae pointed out, “The prime minister stated categorically during the leader's debate . . . that this government was not going to be touching transfers to individuals and transfers to seniors . . . is the prime minister committed to sustaining seniors or is he committed to breaking his promises?

"We are aging in a different way than ever before, most people moving into post-65 category don't have a private pension, they don't have coverage" he said. "(OAS) is a basic income support plan that actually has allowed us to cut poverty to seniors over the past 35 years."

NDP Finance Critic Peter Julian says his party will oppose any cuts to pensions. “We’ll be fighting the Harper government’s intention to make significant cuts over the next few months.” They would be a slap in the face of Canadian seniors.

Government officials scurried about to try to defuse the issue directing curious reporters to the latest federal actuarial report which says the cost of supplementary programs will rise to $108 billion in 2030 from $36.5 billion in 2010.

Presuming Harper’s fears about the financial sustainability of these programs in an aging society are genuine and not motivated by a political agenda that sees tax cuts as the solution to most problems, then there are any number of smarter ways to launch this debate, which, from the evidence, is sorely needed.

For example, he could have used the resumption of Parliament to release a discussion paper spelling out the scope of the financial challenge facing the government and empower a Parliamentary committee to study the issue and report to the MPs.

Or set up a commission of experts to holding hearings on the issue from tax experts, senior’s advocates and others with an interest in the issue.

Show Canadians the numbers and options for dealing with the pension offerings. How can the supplementary plans be made affordable for those who truly need them? Do people need to work longer?

There’s no end of studies and expertise available on the issue. Let Parliament focus on them.

What Harper really has to learn is to get over the control-freak approach to every issue and let Parliament play its role as a sounding board for national issues. Treat Canadians with respect and they will listen to your arguments. Try to ram change through and Harper will get his Charlie Brown moment just as former prime minister Brian Mulroney did with seniors.