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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

Despite rough seas, Harper could still turn the tide on OAS Add to ...

The debate about shifting the age of eligibility for Old Age Security pensions is really only beginning. But even though polls say most people would rather not see this change, it’s not a given the Conservatives will lose on this issue as the debate matures.

The first volley by the Conservatives was something of a misfire. Characterizing a shift in pension eligibility as part of a sweeping transformation of the country played into the hands of the Prime Minister’s critics. By using charged language himself, Stephen Harper legitimized the use of heated language to raise fears about his intentions. His speech in Davos inadvertently gave oxygen to the suspicions of those who think he has a secret agenda to dismantle all that is good about Canada.

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Moreover, the opening framing of this idea caught people by surprise. A sweeping transformation around entitlements is the kind of thing that Canadians think Greece needs. Possibly France. Perhaps even the United States. But we’ve been told by the Conservatives that Canada has been pretty disciplined and while we must be cautious, we can generally avoid traumatic change.

Most people recognize there are a series of demographic challenges coming in Canada, but to date there has been little meaningful debate about the choices the country will be faced with, when we have rapidly increasing numbers of retirees relative to the number of workers in our labour force.

If the Conservatives can make the debate become about those choices, they have a fair chance of succeeding in the battle over the OAS policy. In recent weeks, it seems they have reset their communications strategy, and while the new version comes off a bit dry and actuarial, they are at least now sticking to their main point: Unchanged, the current system will eventually eat up an unprecedented amount of tax money. Taxpayers would inevitably be on the hook for sending more money to Ottawa, having Ottawa borrow more on their behalf, or seeing other programs significantly cut back or eliminated.

While it seldom gets discussed this way, the OAS policy announced this week might be the single best thing the Harper government will ever do for younger Canadians. Everyone has been talking about the implications for older people, but there are no implications for anyone over the age of 53. The voter group the Conservatives are most vulnerable with is the 45 to 53 age group. And while many of them won't like this change, they may not like the alternatives much either. This is a demographic group that generally prefers lower taxes, balanced budgets, and good health and education services. Finally, they have at least a decade to find a way to replace the two years of OAS payments they will lose.

Most folks younger than 40 spend little time on the math of their retirement. In my research work, I hear them worry about the looming demographic crunch, and what it will mean for them during their working years, not later. Their concerns usually don’t come from an uncharitable place; they are more often voiced with dismay and worry. They care about older people, but face real challenges of their own.

For many, finding great jobs despite good educational credentials is harder than they expected. Buying that first home is a more and more elusive dream. Many watch as their parents near retirement age, but face a quandary as their savings and pension plans will fall short of their needs. When these voters think about the mounting pressures on the health care system, which already seems strained, they wonder how it will be affordable as the number of seniors almost doubles. If they hear that OAS could one day consume one in every five tax dollars they pay, this might well seem to them a bill they can't afford to pay.

The debate about OAS is a fiscal and actuarial one for sure. And it touches on the generosity of our society when it comes to seniors. But there’s a third part of this debate: finding an approach that’s fair and reasonable for younger Canadians, whose money or credit we are talking about, at the end of the day.

I'm not suggesting that this policy doesn't present political opportunities for opposition parties, or that the government will be unscathed as the debate unfolds. Only that the outcome isn't a slam dunk, despite the fact that polls, on their surface, show significant public resistance to Mr. Harper's move.

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