Monday, January 11, 2010

Electoral Backlash Over Pension Reform?

Norma Greenaway of the National Post reports, Electoral backlash threatened over pension reform:
Federal and provincial governments will pay a political price if they fail to turn a vague commitment made in December to pursue pension reform into a concrete plan to bolster Canadians' retirement savings, reform advocates are warning.

The Canadian Labour Congress and the leading advocacy group for seniors, known as CARP, vow no-holds-barred campaigns to persuade the Harper government to commit to pension reform in its March throne speech and to keep provincial governments on the case.

They say Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and his provincial counterparts cannot keep getting away with calling for more study on reform options and public consultation, as they did after their meeting in Whitehorse in December.

"That is a technique of governments that don't want to make any changes," said Susan Eng, CARP's pension specialist. "They wear people out with low-level consultations, asking you questions that they have already answered."

Canadians are ahead of the politicians on this issue and they are ready to get down to "brass tacks" on the design of a plan to fatten retirement nest eggs, she said.

Federal and provincial officials have not yet decided what shape the public consultations will take or who will do the research, a federal official said.

But they are facing a spring deadline. Mr. Flaherty told reporters in Whitehorse the ministers "will look at specific recommendations concerning the options" at their next meeting in May.

Following the Whitehorse talks, British Columbia and Alberta said they were putting on hold plans to go it alone with supplementary pension schemes.

Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said he was disappointed by the noncommittal nature of the Whitehorse outcome, but was heartened pension reform is still on the table.

"They didn't shut it down and that leaves us some hope," he said.

The congress has made pension reform its top priority for 2010 and Mr. Georgetti said he views Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to suspend Parliament until March as a bit of a bonus.

"It gives us more chance to work on this issue because we're not distracted by what the government is doing in Ottawa," he said. "Our staff is working full time on this."

Mr. Georgetti predicts pension reform would be a major issue in all future federal and provincial elections, and says politicians would be foolish to ignore calls for help, many of them coming from aging Canadians concerned about how their children and grandchildren will save enough money to finance a decent retirement.

"The grey hair vote is a very important vote," Mr. Georgetti said.

Ms. Eng said older Canadians are stepping up to the lobbying plate even though they know they stand to gain little, if anything, from reforms being discussed.

"The people in our group are already retired. Their goose is cooked," Ms. Eng said. "Really, what they are saying is ‘take the benefit of our advice.' "

The advice? Create a new and attractive savings track for Canadians who do not have workplace pensions -- a benefit that is becoming increasingly rare.

About two-thirds of private-sector workers are without workplace pensions, and the number of employers offering such plans has been shrinking by the year. A 2007 study by the Canadian Institute of Actuaries also said only about one-third of Canadian households were saving at levels capable of generating sufficient income to cover non-discretionary expenses in retirement.

Mr. Georgetti said reforms should focus on future retirees.

"We should start putting in place now an adequate system of retirement savings so that the younger generation will not find themselves in the position that older workers find themselves today."

The Canadian Labour Congress calls for a gradual doubling of Canada Pension Plan contributions over seven years to double the maximum CPP benefit to almost $22,000 a year.

CARP advocates a mandatory supplementary pension plan separate from the CPP that would allow employers and employees to build an even better retirement income.

Ms. Eng said, however, her group would support the Canadian Labour Congress proposal as a first step toward a broader reform.

Mr. Georgetti says he's convinced the congress proposal, which is strongly opposed by banks and financial firms that sell tax-assisted savings vehicles, will win broad public support.

"It's the cheapest of all the options, it's the most effective, it's indexed and it's portable," he said.

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