Critic frustrated by slow pace of pension reform

OTTAWA — Susan Eng says she is one in a growing wave of frustrated Canadians wondering why the federal Conservative government is so slow to address alarming gaps in pension and retirement security the economic recession has exposed.

She says a recent decision to establish a federal-provincial research group to report by the end of the year on the adequacy of retirement income should not be construed as action.

“I think the federal government has been engaging in serial stalling,” says Eng, a leading pension reform advocate at CARP, an organization dedicated to advancing the interests of aging Canadians.

Eng says she’s puzzled as to why modest “tinkering” with the Canada Pension Plan is the only thing on the table at a time when Canadians have been hit over the head — thanks to the bankruptcies of such corporate giants as Nortel — with the inadequacy of private and public sector pensions in Canada.

The Conservative government insists it’s on the case.

Junior Finance Minister Ted Menzies, the government’s point man on pensions, was not available for an interview. The department said in a statement it has struck a federal-provincial research group on pensions, which includes the finance ministers of B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia. It also said the government will by year-end table a “balanced package of proposed amendments” to legislation and rules governing federally regulated private pensions.

New Democrat Wayne Marston says reforms cannot come soon enough. “The bottom fell out of a lot of (retirement) dreams in the last year,” he said in an interview.

Marston is the MP who successfully navigated a motion through the House of Commons that called for reforms to ensure the sustainability of Canadians’ retirement income.

MPs from all parties rallied around the spirit of the non-binding motion and approved it by a stunning 294-0 vote just days before Parliament rose for the summer recess. In the 36 hours leading up to the vote, Eng says, MPs were bombarded with 6,000 supportive e-mails from CARP members.

The motion advocated beefing up CPP/QPP, OAS and GIS and establishing a self-financing pension insurance program to ensure the viability of workplace-sponsored plans in tough economic times.

It also said workers’ pension funds should go to the front of the line of creditors in bankruptcy proceedings, a measure long sought by unions, other employee groups and politicians of all political stripes.

Eng says proposed CPP changes are a “drop in the bucket,” considering the width and depth of the pension problem. She and others, among them Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, are pressing for a national summit on pension reform, an idea the Harper government has so far declined to embrace.

The CPP changes, which need to be approved by Parliament and two thirds of the provinces with two-thirds of the country’s population, are designed to encourage Canadians to work beyond age 60.

The proposals — to be phased in gradually beginning in 2011 — would allow Canadians at age 60 and older to work and draw CPP benefits at the same time, ending the requirement that they remain out of the workforce for two months before beginning to collect.