Feds preach patience on pension reform

OTTAWA — The Harper government’s point man on pension reform says his heart aches for people who have lost or fear losing their retirement savings because of the market meltdown and bankruptcies.

Ted Menzies, a Conservative MP from Alberta, says he heard their pleas for help over and over again as he travelled the country earlier this year, sounding out Canadians on pension issues.

“I heard from a lot of people, [who said] ‘I thought I had a pension. I thought I had a pension,” Menzies said.

“And you feel for these people. They are retired or they are going to retire soon and thought they had a pension.”

But Menzies, a former grain farmer, is not one to let emotions cloud policy-making.

“We’ve got to be careful before we make big decisions based on a very short space in time,” he told Canwest News Service.

Menzies is the lead federal player on a federal-provincial working group created by the countries’ finance ministers in May to assess the adequacy of Canadians’ retirement savings, and make recommendations, if necessary, on how to improve them.

While Menzies preaches patience and more research, aging Canadians and their advocates, as well as the country’s premiers, ooze impatience.

“Retirees ravaged by this economic downturn cannot wait for more studies,” says Susan Eng, a leading pension reform advocate at CARP, an organization dedicated to advancing the interests of aging Canadians.

“The time for action is now,” she says in her latest missive to federal and provincial politicians.

She and other critics contend the retirement landscape in Canada is a disaster, given that three out of four people in the private sector have no pension at all, and that many existing plans are facing shortfalls.

The premiers turned up the volume on the subject last week, rallying around Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s recent calls for a national pension summit.

Activists in British Columbia and Alberta are urging the provinces to introduce government -sponsored supplemental pension plans if the federal-provincial working group doesn’t yield timely change on the national front.

Menzies is unapologetic about the pace of the group’s work and his desire for more research on the state of Canadians’ retirement income.

He argued the Dec. 17-18 deadline for reporting the group’s findings to the country’s finance ministers at a planned gathering in Whitehorse represents “pretty good movement for government.”

Menzies stressed that although the provinces are free to pursue separate retirement insurance plans, he hopes they won’t decide to go it alone.

“We’ve got interprovincial trade barriers, interprovincial labour barriers right now,” he said. “The last thing we want is a pension that can’t be transferred from one province to another.

“If you happen to move from Winnipeg to Halifax and your parents retire — or God forbid you’ve [got] one parent left — and they can’t take their pensions with them and come and live near their kid, that’s the last thing you want to see.”

The minority Conservative federal government is, however, promising to act this fall to protect the value of federally regulated private pension plans. Those account for about seven per cent of the plans in Canada, while all others fall under provincial regulation.