VANCOUVER — Canadians may have noticed that federal Conservatives moved this year with lightning speed to trim public pensions while delaying any action on MPs’ fat-cat retirement scheme.
Stephen Harper first signalled his government would be undertaking public pension reform last January, during a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
By April 26, a Conservative bill outlining cutbacks in Old Age Security was presented for first reading and by the end of June, it had Commons approval, thanks to the government’s majority status.
Accordingly, starting in 2023, the age to collect OAS benefits gradually will begin moving from 65 to 67.
For changes of such magnitude, the pace of government action was remarkably swift. The public barely had time to mobilize opposition.
Contrast that to a 20-year campaign by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation for pension reform that would apply to parliamentarians.
Andrew MacDougall, spokes-man for the prime minister, advised recently, "The government intends to take action on MP pensions and the specifics will be outlined in the fall."
He notes the prime minister will be consulting Conservative MPs before acting.
Pity the PM did not similarly take time to consult Canadians before changing their pensions. Pity, too, only the foxes in the henhouse are to be canvassed.
Surely, taxpayers deserve some say since, outrageously, they bear nearly all the cost of the parliamentary pensions.
"If the politicians don’t hear from taxpayers over the summer, you can bet that any changes introduced three months from now will be underwhelming," predicts Troy Lanigan, president of the taxpayers federation.
"If we don’t push back on this plan now, it could be years before we get another opportunity."
His group has launched a petition drive on its website this summer, asserting the Conservatives lacked the moral authority to reform the public pensions without first addressing their own.
Specifically the federation wants a 50-50 shared cost deal for the politicians’ retirement stipend, with monies directed to a pooled registered pension plan.
It also wants a provision to cancel taxpayer-paid retirement benefits for any MP convicted of a crime related to their public office.
According to the federation, taxpayers are forking over $23.30 for every $1 an MP contributes to his pension.
Those with six years service are eligible to start receiving the booty at age 55. This can translate, in the case of longer-serving politicians who’ve acted as ministers, into pensions of $100,000 a year and more.
High-flying cabinet minister Bev Oda, for example, who is 67 and announced her resignation as of the end of July after eight years service, will immediately start collecting a $52,183 annual MP pension, totalling $701,464 by the time she’s 80.
MPs have long argued their pensions help compensate for arduous toil. But they’re well paid for their work, with an annual base salary of $157,000. Worryingly, the MP plan is entirely unfunded, leaving a liability of about $1 billion for Canadian taxpayers.
"Benefits this rich, backed by no assets, put MPs in no position to fix other federal employee pension plans," C.D. Howe Institute CEO Bill Robson has written.
Robson, like the taxpayers federation, advocates a pooled registered pension plan for the MPs.
But over many years there has been no shortage of suggestions for change. This is a very old movie.
Overhauling MP pensions has been as tough as reforming the Senate.
Harper has been unyielding in his drive to cut public spending. It will be interesting to see if his conviction holds when it comes to the porcine MP pensions.
» Barbara Yaffe is a national affairs columnist for the Vancouver Sun.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 18, 2012