As world financial markets had another tumultuous week, plummeting for a few days, wiping out billions of dollars in savings, and then only slightly rebounding, Canadians were reminded once again that leaving retirement security up to a gambler’s vagaries provides no security at all.
By now, given the market meltdown of 2008 and 2009, and last week’s craziness, the lesson for how we deliver retirement security should be very clear.
Unless you are Ted Menzies, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s secretary of state who has also taken on the role of cheerleader for big banks, insurance companies and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Pumping it up
Menzies is doing Canadians a disservice by pumping his glorified RRSP or pooled pension plan option during a cross-country tour and leaving the more stable and sensible solution to pension reform off the table — enhancing the Canada Pension Plan.
But then we should not be surprised.
Menzies, despite all the evidence and support from pension experts, has consistently dismissed improving CPP.
His opposition is mostly ideologically based. In his mind, retirement savings should be voluntary, rather than mandatory; employers should only contribute if they wish; and people should fend for themselves rather than relying on a collective approach to retirement security.
Blind to reality
This ideology ignores reality. Experts say a decent retirement income is equal to about 70 per cent of a person’s working income. That means people have to start saving in their 20s. Young people have other priorities — like paying off student debts, buying their first home and starting a family. There isn’t anything left over to save.
The only saving is through contributions made to CPP and only then because they are mandatory, paid by employees and their employers. The issue is CPP only replaces about 25 per cent of a person’s pre-retirement earnings. It needs to be enhanced.
Improving CPP is a simple and straightforward way to ensure Canadians can retire in dignity and out of poverty.
As Mr. Menzies meets by special invitation with those who will support his idea — some employers and the very financial industry that hopes to make a tidy profit from the management fees they can charge — we can expect his conclusion will be that there is huge support for his flawed proposal.
While 40 per cent of Canadians, mostly because of collective bargaining, have a workplace pension plan, about 11 million working Canadians do not.
Workers with pensions are being told that plans they have paid into for years are now unaffordable.
Ironically it was just a few years ago that many employers were allowed to take, because of pension plan surpluses, contribution holidays.
Where are Canadians to turn? To RRSPs or Mr. Menzies’ glorified RRSP option, called pooled registered pension plans?
A half-century of proof should be enough. These individual saving options are just not working for the vast majority of Canadians. They are not providing security or adequate income replacement. Even bank economists have attested to this fact.
As the attack on workplace pensions continues, one thing is certain the pension crisis will only worsen. Doing more of the same, which is what Mr. Menzies is proposing, will not fix the problem.
CPP wasn’t the whole solution
Dr. Jonathan Kesselman is the Canada research chair in public finance in Simon Fraser University’s school of public policy. He recently completed a study on retirement security in which he endorsed improving the Canada Pension Plan.
He says CPP benefits were set at a modest level on the expectation that workplace pensions and personal savings would grow to supplement public pensions, allowing all Canadians to maintain their accustomed living standards in retirement.
But that has not happened, according to Prof. Kesselman. He says policy makers and finance ministers must resist the pressure from the business lobby and those who oppose CPP improvements. In an article for The Financial Post, he noted that over 30 years ago, efforts to expand CPP were thwarted and warned the ministers not to allow the same thing to happen again. “The time for decisive and bold action is now,” he said.
The labour movement has also been promoting enhancing CPP and all provinces had agreed, with the exception of Alberta. But in order to make this happen, provincial finance ministers will have to get more aggressive with the federal government.
Enhancing CPP makes the most sense if you are truly concerned with the retirement security of Canadians. The only thing standing in the way is a lack of federal political will and ideology.
And as the stock market reminded us last week, you just can’t depend on it for security, so why pretend otherwise?
Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her column returns Aug. 27.