Research contradicts PM’s warning about OAS

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Expert advice commissioned by the federal government contradicts Stephen Harper’s warnings that Canada can’t afford the looming bill for Old Age Security payments.

The Prime Minister and his ministers forcefully defended their surprise plans to review OAS on Monday, as the year’s first sitting of Parliament exploded with accusations from the opposition that the Conservatives misled Canadians during the 2011 federal election.

Mr. Harper held his ground, insisting Canada’s aging population means Ottawa must change the rules for future seniors to ensure it has the long-term cash to cut a growing number of monthly cheques. The Prime Minister’s decision to signal his planned pension changes while in Europe last week was partly to remind Canadians of the deep problems European governments are facing because of social programs they can’t afford.

But research prepared at Ottawa’s request argues Canada’s pension system is in far better shape than the Europeans’, and there’s no need to raise the retirement age. Edward Whitehouse – who researches pension policy on behalf of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Bank – was asked by Ottawa to study and report on how Canada stacks up internationally when it comes to pensions.

His conclusion: “The analysis suggests that Canada does not face major challenges of financial sustainability with its public pension schemes,” and “there is no pressing financial or fiscal need to increase pension ages in the foreseeable future.”

While other OECD countries face big pension problems, the report predicts Canada will do just fine as the baby boomers retire. That’s because, as Canada heads into the boomer crunch, it spends far less than the OECD average on public pensions. Further, Canada’s relatively high levels of immigration will partially offset the distortions of an aging population, and Canadians tend to save more independently through RRSPs and workplace pensions than Europeans.

The report is one of six that fed into a larger summary paper written by the University of Calgary’s Jack Mintz that reported to federal and provincial finance ministers at a December, 2009, meeting. While this supporting research was overshadowed at the time, it stands in sharp contrast to forceful warnings now coming from the Conservative government.

Mr. Harper repeated his view Monday that Canada’s aging population threatens social programs. “Everybody understands that there are demographic realities that do threaten the viability of these programs over the longer term, and we will make sure that these programs are funded and viable for the future generations that will need them,” he told the House of Commons.

A spokesperson for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley responded to questions about Mr. Whitehouse’s report by pointing to the latest actuary report on the OAS, which stated the cost of the program will nearly triple by 2030.

Ministers refused to provide details of the proposed changes and would only say that current recipients of OAS will not be affected.

The government’s claims leave experts baffled. Thomas Klassen, a York University political science professor who co-authored a 2010 report on Canada’s pension system, said his own research concluded that the OAS program is sustainable.

“I haven’t heard any academic argue that there’s a crisis with OAS, which is why I was surprised a few days ago when the Prime Minister seemed to say there was a crisis,” he said. “Because I don’t know where that came from.”

Prof. Klassen said he suspects the federal government has concluded that reducing OAS costs is an easy way to save money over the long term because it can be done unilaterally without negotiating with the provinces or public-sector unions. “It’s okay to look at Old Age Security pension payments,” he said, “but I think there’s got to be a lot more evidence that there’s a problem, and I don’t see that evidence.”

Kevin Milligan, a University of British Columbia economics professor who co-authored another of the supporting research papers prepared for Ottawa, is also of the view that there is no OAS crisis. He says the government’s use of statistics showing the cost of OAS will climb from $36.5-billion in 2010 to $108-billion in 2030 is not very meaningful because of the impact of inflation. He notes the rise is less alarming when measured as a percentage of economic growth.

“As an economist, I would never characterize things in terms of nominal dollars in the future because it’s hard to put those in context,” he said. “I don’t know what we’ll be paying for a litre of milk then.”

When the House of Commons finance committee studied pension issues in 2010, Mr. Whitehouse appeared as a witness and discussed his research.

“Canada’s pension system is looking good on the measures of adequacy. It is also looking good on measures of financial sustainability,” Mr. Whitehouse told MPs. “Canada does not face the same financial sustainability problems as many other OECD member countries do, particularly in Europe and among the East Asian countries, Japan and Korea, whose populations are aging most rapidly.”

At the end of its study, the committee’s final report did not recommend raising the age of eligibility for OAS or reducing benefits. However, a minority report by the committee’s Conservative MPs said payment rates for the OAS and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors should be reviewed.

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