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Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government has floated a plan to increase the eligibility age for Old Age Security benefits to 67 from 65. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government has floated a plan to increase the eligibility age for Old Age Security benefits to 67 from 65. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Crunching Numbers

Pension tinkering fails to dent Tory support among older Canadians Add to ...

Despite a majority of Canadians saying they oppose the plan floated by the government to increase the eligibility age for Old Age Security benefits to 67 from 65, there has been no discernible change in Conservative support among the country’s oldest residents.

In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 26, Prime Minister Stephen Harper intimated his government was planning major reforms to Canada’s retirement-income system. Speculation the Conservatives were thinking about increasing the age of eligibility for OAS benefits was soon confirmed by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

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Older Canadians are the Conservatives’ electoral bread and butter. A survey by Abacus Data shortly after the May 2011 vote, when voting intentions were still reflective of the election’s results, indicated that 40 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 45 and 59 supported the Tories. Among Canadians 60 or older, that support increased to 50 per cent.

Since then, Conservative polling numbers have dropped slightly and support among Canada’s oldest residents has reduced as well. Nevertheless, the Tories still enjoyed strong support in this demographic before Mr. Harper’s Davos speech.

An average of the results of three polls taken by Forum Research and EKOS Research between Dec. 13, 2011 and Jan. 13, 2012 (providing a relatively robust sample of almost 2,800 older voters) indicates the Conservatives had the support of 36 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 45 and 64. The New Democrats had the support of 26 per cent among this demographic, while the Liberals trailed with 24 per cent.

Among voters aged 65 or older, Conservative support stood at 38 per cent, followed by the Liberals at 28 per cent and the New Democrats at 24 per cent.

Word of the government’s intentions for OAS might have been expected to crack their dominance among older Canadians. An Ipsos-Reid survey conducted shortly after the Davos speech suggested only 26 per cent of Canadians supporting increasing the eligibility age from 65 to 67. Support was strongest among 18 to 34 year olds (36 per cent), while opposition was highest among 35 to 54 year olds (81 per cent).

Another poll taken at the same time by Abacus Data found support for the plan at 38 per cent, with 57 per cent preferring that the OAS rules stayed the same. And this in a survey whose question included the government’s reasoning for the change.

An even clearer danger to Conservative support among the country’s oldest (and most enthusiastic) voters was indicated by a poll conducted by CARP, an advocacy group for retired Canadians. Whereas support for the Tories stood at 54 per cent among its membership in mid-January, that had fallen to only 38 per cent in early February, after the Davos speech.

But the latest polling data does not indicate any major shift in support. Three polls, again by Forum Research and EKOS Research and conducted between Feb. 6 and Mar. 3, 2012 (over 4,200 older voters surveyed), put Conservative support among Canadians aged 45 to 64 at an average of 35 per cent, virtually unchanged from where it stood before the government’s comments about changes to OAS benefits.

Among Canadians aged 65 and over, support even increased by four points to 42 per cent, with support being drawn from both the Liberals and the NDP.

That these polls, which were conducted by the same firms and feature large sample sizes, show Conservative support among older Canadians has remained constant or that it even increased despite these proposed changes to retirement benefits may come as a surprise.

However, an Ipsos-Reid poll conducted at the end of 2011 found the average age when people expected to retire had risen to 68 from 64 in 2009. Almost two-thirds of respondents said they needed to work beyond the age of 65 out of necessity, with 58 per cent saying that they did not believe government pensions were enough to live on.

A poll by Nanos Research taken in mid-February found that only 41 per cent of Canadians were somewhat confident or confident that the Canadian Pension Plan would “be able to deliver on promised payments to pensioners in the future”, down from 56 per cent in 2010. Only 11 per cent were completely confident, down from 25 per cent.

This would seem to suggest that Canadians are pessimistic, or perhaps realistic, about their future as retirees. Canadians expect to work beyond the age of 67 anyway and have doubts in their ability to live comfortably on their government-provided benefits. Taking this into consideration, the government’s plans to increase the retirement age and, it argues, make the program more sustainable may not cause much of a ripple on their base after all. So far, this bedrock of Tory support is holding firm.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com

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