NDP defends seniors advocacy group from charges of partisan bias

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is being asked to explain why he allowed a Conservative MP to accuse Canada’s largest seniors advocacy group of being a front for Liberal partisans.

Paul Calandra, the MP for Oak Ridges-Markham, north of Toronto, slipped into the end of a Commons finance committee meeting this week and spent all of his allotted time accusing Susan Eng, CARP’s head of advocacy, of campaigning for the Liberals.

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Earlier this year, the group conducted a poll of its members which suggested that a majority opposed the government’s decision to gradually increase the age at which Canadians can collect Old Age Security, a measure that became law last spring as part of an omnibus budget bill.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair led off the daily Question Period in the House of Commons on Thursday by saying the Conservatives must be feeling the heat over the OAS cuts if they are firing back against CARP.

“CARP is not to blame for the backlash Conservatives are getting from seniors. The Prime Minister is to blame,” said Mr. Mulcair who will address a meeting of the group in Toronto on Friday. “Does the Prime Minister agree with his member’s attack on Canada’s largest seniors’ group?”

Mr. Harper replied that the changes to the OAS, which will come into effect in 2023 “will ensure the sustainability of the program for many generations to come.” But he did not directly respond to the question of Mr. Calandra’s barrage against Ms. Eng.

Which prompted Mr. Mulcair to quip: “So he agrees with the attack on CARP.”

At the Commons finance committee on Tuesday, which was conducting pre-budget consultations, Mr. Calandra accused CARP of campaigning for the Liberals at an event the group had organized in his riding in March of 2011, just before the last election campaign began.

Julian Fantino, who at that time held the seniors portfolio in the federal cabinet, was the headline speaker.

“You were actually campaigning for the Liberal candidate in the riding at that time,” Mr. Calandra told Ms. Eng. “It was days before the election and there was, of course, a great deal of Liberal campaign literature strewn throughout the event at the same time that a minister was there announcing some great news for seniors.”

Mr. Calandra said he was worried about CARP’s direction. “Has it become so political in nature that, as opposed to advocating on behalf of seniors, you are actually advocating on behalf of a political party or an ideology that you have?” he asked.

Ms. Eng replied that the MP’s accusation was inaccurate and pointed out that it was Mr. Fantino, a Conservative, who topped all of CARP’s promotional literature for the event. She told the committee that CARP’s members come from all parts of the political spectrum and her group prides itself on being non-partisan.

Later, in a telephone interview with The Globe, Ms. Eng explained that, although CARP had arranged the March 2011 event near Mr. Fantino’s riding to make it easy for him, other parties were also invited to attend. Michael Ignatieff, who was then the Liberal leader, decided to show up with an entourage and his people handed out literature, she said. But their politicking and decision to pass around pamphlets had nothing to do with CARP, Ms. Eng said.

CARP has, at times, panned the policies of the Conservative government. But it has also praised many of the government’s initiatives. Ms. Eng said she assumed it was her members’ opposition to the OAS that ignited Mr. Calandra’s attack.

Andrew Cash, the NDP MP for Davenport who sits on the Commons heritage committee with Mr. Calandra, said attacks on witnesses at committee meetings are part of the Conservative game plan. But, said Mr. Cash, “if you attack CARP and you attack Susan Eng, that’s a real hit below the belt, I think.”

Scott Brison, the Liberal MP who sits on the finance committee, blamed the attacks on Mr. Harper.

“Sadly,” said Mr. Brison, “this kind of mean-spirited, hyperpartisan bullying is typical of Harper MPs, and is rewarded by the PM.”

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