Canada’s medicare story could be model for pension reform: expert

This article was published by Canwest News Service on November 22nd 2009

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OTTAWA — Just as Saskatchewan dared to lead the country in 1962 with a universal medicare dream that went national in 1968, provincial leadership is once again behind a “big idea” that will eventually go national, Keith Ambachtsheer, a leading expert on pensions, predicts.

The big idea, being led by British Columbia and Alberta, is the creation of a widely accessible option beyond the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan to help millions of Canadians build better retirement nest eggs.

Ambachtsheer, director of the Rotman International Centre for Pension Management at the University of Toronto, says advocates of such a supplementary pension plan should not be dissuaded by federal Conservative government’s lack of interest so far.

Instead, they should remember how Tommy Douglas, who, as premier of Saskatchewan, fathered medicare for the country.

“It (medicare) wasn’t invented in Ottawa. It was invented in Saskatchewan and it went national,” Ambachtsheer said in an interview.

Ambachtsheer said he’s convinced the provinces, with or without Ottawa, will move ahead on a broad-based, low-cost simple pension plan or plans to help the one in four workers in the private sector who have no workplace pensions and others who want to fatten their retirement cushion.

“This thing is being invented as we go along in Western Canada. I believe it will go national,” he said. “Whether Ottawa wants to play some role, or not, frankly, it’s not a major issue if all the provinces decide they are going to do it.”

For now, the governments of British Columbia and Alberta are leading the charge. Although they say they would prefer a national approach, they say they’re ready to go it alone if necessary.

Saskatchewan has said it would likely go with them, and now Manitoba, under the leadership of Greg Selinger, the new NDP premier, has given a thumbs up to the budding regional initiative.

Rosann Wowchuk, who replaced Selinger as finance minister, told Canwest News Service the province’s first choice is a national plan to complement CPP and build on its infrastructure.

“If that doesn’t go,” Wowchuk said, “we would move toward a strong regional plan.”

At this point, nobody rules out the possibility of provinces east of Manitoba joining the western initiatives or fashioning their own supplementary plans.

Provincial officials make no secret of their frustration with the Harper government’s silence on the subject. They say they hope to get a better sense of the federal mood at a meeting of finance ministers in Whitehorse next month when the pension issue is expected to get a full airing.

The federal government “isn’t giving any signals of where it wants to go,” said Wowchuk. “The December meeting is going to be very important because, I believe, we’ll all get a sense from the federal government about what their position is.”

Ambachtsheer said the provinces must take the lead because it’s not in the Harper government’s nature to want to “front end” some national vision.