What Ted Menzies didn't say

Lana
Lana Payne
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It seems I have struck a Conservative nerve.

Last week, Ted Menzies, Parliamentary secretary to federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, took exception to a column I wrote on pensions and retirement security. Mr. Menzies is heading up a pension review for the federal government.

In a letter to the editor which appeared in last Saturday's Telegram, Mr. Menzies accused me of using partisan rhetoric and trivializing pension issues. Not surprisingly, Mr. Menzies failed to address the many points made in this column with respect to building an enhanced public pension system in Canada.

It seems I have struck a Conservative nerve.

Last week, Ted Menzies, Parliamentary secretary to federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, took exception to a column I wrote on pensions and retirement security. Mr. Menzies is heading up a pension review for the federal government.

In a letter to the editor which appeared in last Saturday's Telegram, Mr. Menzies accused me of using partisan rhetoric and trivializing pension issues. Not surprisingly, Mr. Menzies failed to address the many points made in this column with respect to building an enhanced public pension system in Canada.

His criticism is in large part because I do not agree with his or his government's ideological position on pensions which leans more towards the "fend-for-yourself" rather than a more collective approach to retirement security.

Not a political game

There is nothing partisan or trivial about believing that, as a nation, we have a collective role to play in ensuring an adequate retirement income for all seniors.

I do not normally respond to letters to the editor, but this one deserved a response - if for no other reason than there is more to say about pensions and Canada's retirement security system.

Here are a couple of things that Mr. Menzies failed to point out when he suggested this province's Federation of Labour did not appear at hearings on pensions.

His pensions' review committee holding the consultations didn't bother to come to Newfoundland and Labrador to hear the concerns of people in this province. Like too many federal committees, it stopped in Halifax and felt that was good enough for the rest of Atlantic Canada.

Was represented

The Federation of Labour's position on pensions was represented at those hearings and in those consultations by the Canadian Labour Congress, our national organization, which did make representation to Mr. Menzies' committee on behalf of working people across the country.

The so-called federal-provincial pension working group being headed up by Jack Mintz cannot and should not replace a national summit on pensions.

And here's why. This is an internal research working group that will report to the federal-provincial finance ministers. It cannot replace a more thorough, public and more democratic discussion on pensions.

If the provinces and premiers thought this was sufficient, they would not have called for a national summit when they met this past summer in Regina.

At that time, the premiers "called for urgent attention to the issue of how private and public retirement plans can better meet the needs of Canadians as they retire." They called on the federal government to host a national summit on retirement income. The premiers also welcomed the research group "as a good first step," according to a news release from the Premiers' Council of the Federation.

The premiers agreed that a national summit should bring together not just governments, but stakeholders and experts to discuss "possible options to improve saving options for Canadians."

Interestingly, Mr. Menzies did not respond to this request by the premiers in his list of what his government is doing on pensions.

In addition, perhaps Canadians would like to know that Jack Mintz, the academic leading the federal-provincial research working group referred to by Mr. Menzies, is not without controversy given his previously expressed opinions on retirement savings.

No one should be surprised that the former head of the C.D. Howe Institute leans more to the "fend-for-yourself" side of the debate.

In a column for the National Post this past spring, Mr. Mintz dismissed suggestions from a number of provinces including Nova Scotia, Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta which recommended a more collective approach to retirement savings, such as "a governmentpromoted multi-employer pension plan." In stating his support for individual savings or a RRSP approach to retirement savings, Mr. Mintz noted his dislike of pension rules that restrict access by individuals to retirement savings because they are in locked-in accounts.

How can anyone with a straight face recommend RRSPs as the best retirement savings option given the meltdown on the stock market recently?

This view also ignores the facts regarding RRSPs as a retirement savings tool. As has been pointed out by Don Drummond, chief economist with the TD Bank, "voluntary programs" such as RRSPs "have been ineffective in sufficiently buoying retirement savings." He notes, as I pointed out in my last column, that just 31 per cent of eligible tax filers made RRSP contributions in 2007 and these contributions represented just six per cent of the room available to filers. In addition, these contributions are "biased towards individuals in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution."

And while Mr. Mintz may refer to these locked-in rules as being "paternalistic," they work. CPP could also be referred to as a paternalistic approach to retirement security as those of us who work are required to pay into the public pension plan.

Without this so-called paternalistic approach, millions of Canadians would retire into poverty or be totally reliant on public programs like Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement - costing taxpayers a lot more in the long-run.

Either way, what Canadians deserve is a full examination of retirement options and possibilities. A more collective approach should not be dismissed just because it goes against the Conservative view.

Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by e-mail at lanapayne@nl.rogers.com. Her column returns Sept. 26.

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, Canadian Labour Congress, C.D. Howe Institute National Post TD Bank Old Age Security

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, Halifax Regina Nova Scotia Ontario British Columbia Alberta

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