The problem with pensions is politics—A Commentary by Adam Goldenberg ’14
The problem with pensions is politics
By Adam Goldenberg ’14
Colin Carrie was standing mere feet from Jim Flaherty when the Finance Minister peeled back the latest layer of the government’s plans for Old Age Security, on Friday.
“This is not for tomorrow morning,” said Flaherty. “This is for 2020, 2025.”
Unfortunately for Carrie, the Member of Parliament for Oshawa, 2025 may come too soon; that’s the year he turns 65. Thank goodness for MP pensions.
But other not-quite-seniors may not be so lucky. We don’t know yet, and neither, it seems, does Colin Carrie. The Conservatives seem keen to slacken the social safety net, but the specifics are only just beginning to seep out.
It has been a slow striptease, beset by partisan squabbling — “debate” would be too generous a description — and the rancour of our politics is to blame. Ottawa has become too small for big issues; every decision is bedevilled by its details. In this age of spin, our leaders are too timid to tempt the third rail. And so they delay, dither, and deny. Eventually, the public will pay the price for their procrastination.
Of course, the Conservatives are largely responsible for the sorry state of our democratic debate. For nearly a decade, Harper and his team have taken their opponents out of context at every turn. They’ve pounced wherever plausible. They’ve played to win, and win they have.
Now, however, the shoe is on the other foot. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in late January, the Prime Minister may or may not have suggested that his government may or may not do something — somehow, sometime — to reduce spending on public pensions. The opposition parties swiftly let slip the guns of war.
For the Liberals and the NDP, defending OAS is easy politics. Seniors swing elections, and seniors in poverty blight our society. Harper may well be punished in the polls for his proposed parsimony. But such political consequences reflect a much more dangerous dilemma. The Conservatives have yet to propose any actual changes to OAS, but the other parties didn’t need details to lose their cool. Their hyperbolic reaction to even the possibility of pension changes makes clear why hard choices are so rarely made in our politics; when difficult decisions entail winners and losers, politicians tend to end among the latter.
But here we face a basic question of democratic trust: how do we, as a society, make and keep commitments to ourselves over time? Pensions policy is a choice between generations, of promises kept and broken. Keeping our word to aging baby boomers may mean breaking it to their grandchildren.
We elect our MPs to make these hard choices. But when we punish them for doing so — by appealing to anxiety and ratcheting up rhetoric — we suck legitimacy out of our politics. Bob Rae is right: in the last election, Stephen Harper failed to mention any plans to prune pensions. But consider the reaction when he finally broke his silence; can you really blame him for taking so long?
Yes, during the 2006 election campaign, Harper promised to “fully preserve the Old Age Security,” as well as “all projected future increases.” But that was before he squandered a $13 billion budget surplus on tax breaks and spending sprees, sending the country into deficit before the recession began. That was then, this is now: Harper may have built the bridge to fiscal shortfall, but the red ink is already under it.
The issue is now one of fairness. It hardly seems fair to ask today’s seniors to pay for their parents’ fertility. But is it really any fairer to ask younger workers to give up some of their own retirement benefits, while their taxes pay for their parents’?
Our democratic process is supposed to settle these trade-offs justly, at the polls. But difficult questions rarely survive the sound bites of our election campaigns. And so our democracy has become a public spectacle, and justice between generations becomes a battle between talking points. Canadians are cheated of the fulsome debate that our future deserves.
It’s unreasonable to expect a government to do nothing but what they said they would during the last election. Don’t believe me? Ask Bob Rae. Wiggle room is a fact of any democracy; voters may pass judgment at the next election. But if Canadians want more than after-the-fact accountability — if we want to have a real say in how our country is governed, in advance — then we have to stop rewarding politicians who practice the scorched-earth politics of spin.
Because for those of us who plan to retire after Jim Flaherty’s “2020, 2025” deadline, after-the-fact accountability may not come soon enough.
Adam Goldenberg is a Munk-Gordon Fellow and a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. He was chief speechwriter to former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, and served as a senior aide in the McGuinty government in Ontario. He has advised leaders in the public, private, and non-profit sectors across North America.