Third reading of Bill C-38, An Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 29, 2012 and other measures

Honourable senators, I stand tonight to urge you to prevent the passage of Bill C-38’s proposed amendments to the Old Age Security Act, specifically that the age of eligibility for the Old Age Security pension and the Guaranteed Income Supplement be gradually increased from 65 to 67.

Increasing the age when Canadians can begin receiving these important payments under our federal public pension system will have a hugely negative impact on financially vulnerable segments of our population. It is as though the government has drafted these changes without any thought for low-income Canadians, Canadians who, for an array of known reasons, will struggle financially and will likely never work for employers offering defined pension plans or have sufficient resources to save for their retirement.

The proposed amendments to OAS will take effect in 2023, but they already have many people seriously worried about their retirement years. Our government is telling Canadians who are today 53 years old and under that they will have to work longer before they can retire. Our government has essentially issued a decree that alters fundamentally how Canada will take care of its future senior citizens, and, in reaching its decision, our government has failed to consult with Canadians and heed the evidence and wisdom of those who understand the Old Age Security program best.

The Prime Minister says that the changes set out in Bill C-38 for Old Age Security are necessary to ensure its financial or fiscal sustainability. Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, has openly countered this argument, pointing to the federal government’s projected revenues and economic growth as evidence that the program is both sustainable and affordable. The government’s tactic has been to cite findings from the country’s Chief Actuary that the number of OAS pension recipients will nearly double over the next 20 years because of increased life expectancy and the aging of the baby boom generation; but has the chief actuary also said that the associated increase in future demands on OAS will mean a crisis? Not at all. Canada has been preparing for the impending growth of the senior population for a long time, with systems in place to ensure our public pension system is equipped to ride out the wave.

Of course, it would make sense to consider adjusting elements of our public pension programs. I am all for gathering facts and hearing different opinions from the specialists. That is hard to do with time allocation by, the way. I believe too in discussion and debate, which is also hard to do with time allocation. Without these processes, where is democracy?

Rather than creating panic with warnings of an aging population crisis, the government would be better serving all of us by building awareness of facts and generating exchanges of ideas on these facts. The Chief Actuary’s reports to Parliament are a good place to start. They clearly show, for instance, that OAS disproportionately supports women, especially widows. The pension income from the program is hugely important for poorer seniors. If we take a few minutes to reflect on people we know or know about, it is distressingly easy to identify some of those people who will be hit especially hard by the increased age of eligibility for OAS.

Let us not fool ourselves. The impact of these changes is about a lot more than just two more years of work. For many people who earn low income, OAS actually enables them to enjoy a better quality of life. I am thinking of a woman living right here in Ottawa. She has struggled with mental illness for many years and has been unable to work steadily. Now she is receiving OAS payments. This has made a big difference in her life, and it is astounding. Before, she could not even afford to take the bus. She had to walk everywhere or depend on others to help run errands and get to appointments. Two more years of that would have been harder than any of us can imagine. The maximum amount she receives from OAS would be about $540 a month. It is not a fortune to most of us, but to her, it means a significantly better quality of life. I think here tonight about what will happen to those who are 53 and under who will find themselves in similar conditions. We have to think of those folks. I shudder at the thought of what may happen to them.

In remote towns across Canada, there are thousands of men and women working in factories and plants. Assuming these employers are open to keeping on or hiring older workers — and that is a big question — these workers will have to work two extra years. This is especially significant for those closest to 53 years old. Their jobs could be stressful or physically demanding. This is also hard on the younger people in these same communities who cannot find work. Older workers will be taking jobs from the next generation of workers in a weak economy.

As many of you already know, I do what I can, along with others here in the Senate, in helping children with disabilities. Naturally, I am also thinking of them and what the future holds for them. They will not always be children and will not always have their parents around to care for them. Unless they are fortunate enough to have supports with a registered disability savings plan or a handsome trust, odds are that they will be poor. How can our government possibly propose reducing two years of OAS and GIS support to these people, to people who generally, for all kinds of reasons, will be low-income earners. Think about it.

The knowledge and instincts I have with regard to the government’s proposed changes to OAS are widely shared within the Canadian population. If there is a moment when opposition to the plan to the government should be expressed, it is now, here in this chamber. The best chance I have of making a difference is to urge all of you honourable senators to act in respect to the people who will be hit the hardest by what Bill C-38 sets out for the future for OAS. The changes are unnecessary, and they will certainly harm future generations of Canadians.