Bob Rae isn’t buying speculation that a backlash from Conservative MPs is forcing Prime Minister Stephen Harper to back down on his vow to make transformative changes to the Old Age Security system.
Rather, the Interim Liberal leader believes that Mr. Harper’s speech in Davos, Switzerland, in which he announced reforms were coming, was not a “trial balloon.”
“It was supposed to be a triumphalist moment for Harper, a chance for him to lecture the ‘welfare state Europeans,’ and to tell Canadians from his Alpine perch that cuts to Old Age Security are on the way,” Mr. Rae told the Globe.
There have been reports that the Conservatives are planning a retreat after MPs told Mr. Harper in the national caucus meeting Wednesday that their constituents were concerned about reforms.
More may become clear Thursday as the NDP has put forward an opposition day motion rejecting what it says are the government’s attempts to balance the budget on the backs of Canada’s seniors.
Mr. Harper, meanwhile, has yet to provide any details to his plans. Rather, he and his senior ministers have assured seniors that their benefits will not be cut. Earlier this week, Government House leader Peter Van Loan indicated that any reforms were for the medium or long-term.
And Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told CTV’s News Channel Wednesday that this was a “review” of OAS to make sure that it is sustainable. He said there would be nothing about this in the upcoming budget.
One senior Conservative source said Thursday morning that you cannot “retreat” from something that is not yet announced.
Indeed, reforms have been tried before but it’s clear that Canadian seniors will not be messed with – former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney introduced reforms in 1985, but the push-back from seniors was so intense he backed off.
In 1996, then Finance Minister Paul Martin tried also, but he later changed his mind.
The question is will Mr. Harper be forced to do the same?
“I haven’t seen anything yet – apart from press speculation and Conservative spinning – which amounts (yet) to a climb down,’ Mr. Rae wrote in an email. “... Did he get snowed in Davos? Or get caught in the fog on the mountain top? Did his designer Newt Gingrich goggles fail him this time? Will it be all downhill for Harper or all downhill for Canadians worrying about their future security? Stay tuned.”
(Mr. Rae’s mocking reference to Newt Gingrich was related to the fact that former U.S. Speaker, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, has given a couple of shout-outs to Canada and the Prime Minister in his speeches of late – suggesting that they are like-minded conservative thinkers.) The Tories are also pushing back against the opposition, however, after several days of being bashed and battered in Question Period.
Tories hit back
On Wednesday, Harper PMO strategists circulated a memo to supporters accusing the NDP of misleading Canadians. The memo was prompted by finance critic Peter Julian’s aggressive questioning over the OAS controversy.
For the past several days, Mr. Julian has argued the Conservatives have their priorities mixed up, given that they’d rather spend millions on prisons and fighter jets than support seniors.
The Tories are sensitive about costs, and are disputing the figures that Mr. Julian has put on building new prison cells and buying the state-of-the-art jets; he has said the government will spend $30-billion on the F-35 jet program and $19-billion on prisons.
“This is false and completely dishonest,” says the memo. “Our entire tough on crime agenda is estimated to cost $2.7-billion over 5 years whereas the F-35 program will cost $16-billion over 20 years,” according to the memo.
What is clear is that the government is feeling the heat.