Premiers’ summit to press for Canada Pension Plan overhaul

Premiers are planning to put Canada Pension Plan reform back on the national agenda when they meet this week at Niagara-on-the-Lake.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne – who plays host to this year’s gathering of the Council of the Federation – said her provincial and territorial colleagues will discuss what she says is a need to ensure Canadians are saving enough for retirement.

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I still believe that we need an enhanced CPP,” she said. “It’s interesting, because the federal Finance Minister seemed to have some interest in having the discussion and that interest seems to have waned over the past months. But it’s still something that I think is important for us to discuss, again, even if the federal government isn’t there right now.”

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has had little to say on CPP reform since he announced in December that he and his provincial and territorial colleagues had agreed on “a way forward.”

After a December meeting in Meech Lake, Que., Mr. Flaherty said Canada’s finance ministers agreed that officials should draft a plan in which higher CPP premiums to pay for more generous benefits would begin once the economy is stronger. Officials were asked to look at potential triggers such as stronger economic growth or lower unemployment.

Mr. Flaherty said at the time that ministers would meet again within six months to assess the plan. However no face-to-face meeting was ever scheduled. Last week Mr. Flaherty spoke with provincial and territorial finance ministers for one hour via Telepresence to gather their input before he headed to Russia for G20 meetings.

Finance Canada spokesman David Barnabe said the CPP issue would be discussed at the next face-to-face meeting of finance ministers, which he said normally takes place in late December.

“Officials are still continuing with their work and the issue,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. Flaherty and his colleagues have been discussing pension reform every December since at least 2008. Because changing the federal-provincial program requires the support of two thirds of the provinces, representing two thirds of the population – and Ottawa’s support – Mr. Flaherty has often said none of the proposals to date has met that test.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall noted his province has passed a law to spur pooled registered pension plans, private-sector options to encourage saving for retirement. He would rather see how that works, rather than drive through an “involuntary increase” to the CPP.

“It’s not at the top of our list,” he said of enhancing the CPP, adding that the Canadian economy is still fragile.

A spokeswoman for Alberta Premier Alison Redford said the Premier would not want to see changes until the economy has recovered.

“But it is something that we certainly want to talk to other provinces about,” said Neala Barton.

While the issue of pension reform has ebbed and flowed, there has been sustained – and sometimes heated – debate among academics, think tanks and labour organizations over the extent of the problem and the various options available.

Charles Lammam recently co-authored a paper for the Fraser Institute that argued higher CPP premiums would lead many Canadians to scale back on other retirement savings, such as RRSP contributions.

Mr. Lammam told The Globe that there are positive aspects to the CPP – such as the fact that its benefits are guaranteed. However, he’s concerned that not enough attention is being paid to its drawbacks in comparison to RRSPs, such as the fact that RRSP savings can be fully transferred to a beneficiary at death or can be used early in the case of a critical illness.

“I don’t think we have this pension crisis that some would like us to believe that we do,” he said.

For her part, Ms. Wynne said it’s clear her colleagues want to discuss CPP reform, but she isn’t sure where that talk will lead.

“I don’t know how specific we’ll get,” she said. “But I know that some of my colleague premiers are very interested in advancing the discussion and seeing if we can’t push the bar a bit higher with the federal government.”

With a report from Josh Wingrove in Ottawa

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