Grey Nation's growing clout reflected in Fantino's appointment

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on January 11th, 2011. To go to the Ottawa Citizen website please click here

Julian Fantino’s new role as minister of state for seniors has been dubbed “minister of little old ladies and geezers” by one commentator, but the former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner and political novice has been handed a traditionally low-profile portfolio that’s booming from a demographic point of view.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper tapped the newly elected Fantino, 68, to take over the role just as the massive baby boomer generation is starting to turn 65. Statistics Canada projects that seniors’ share of the population — a record-high 13.7 per cent at the latest census count in 2006 — will nearly double by 2031.

“The political analysis was that he’s a star, he had to get something. A lot of the usual Hill-watchers would be saying, ‘This is not a big one.’ And I think they’re completely wrong,” said Susan Eng, vice-president advocacy for CARP, a 300,000-member organization representing the 50-plus in Canada.

“(It’s) always been an afterthought ministry. It’s a positive that Harper has chosen to give it a high profile. Now I’m looking for substance.”

More home health care options, better financial support for family caregivers and abolishment of mandatory retirement in federally-regulated industries are among the issues she’d like to see Fantino tackle.

Ministers of state, a position created by Pierre Trudeau in 1971, are junior ministers who sit at the cabinet table — unlike secretaries of state — and handle a specific policy area. Before Fantino was appointed last week, Harper’s previous choices for the post were MP Diane Ablonczy and Senator Marjory LeBreton.

The rapid aging of the Canadian population is creating a number of thorny issues the government and Fantino will have to confront.

Statistics Canada projects that within five years, there will be more people reaching retirement age and leaving the workforce than there will be young adults coming in to replace them, sparking fears of a skilled labour shortage.

One in 11 Canadians over age 65 has dementia, says the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, and if nothing changes, the economic costs of the disease are projected to hit $153 billion in Canada within a generation.

Seniors accounted for 13 per cent of the population in 2004 but 44 per cent of the public health care budget, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the organization projects population growth, aging and inflation will increase health care budgets by 4.4 per cent per year over the next two decades in order to maintain the same level of service.

“The portfolio has grown in importance over the years politically because of demographics,” Conservative strategist Tim Powers said of the seniors file.

Voters over 60, especially men, are a strong element of the Tory base, he said, and this government has appealed to them with policies such as income-splitting. The arthritis medication and reverse home mortgage commercials that dominate political programming reveal who’s most politically engaged in Canada, Powers said.