Finance Minister Bill Morneau said he's open to a panel recommendation that Ottawa should encourage seniors to stay in the work force, despite having reversed Conservative plans to raise the eligibility age for the Old Age Security Pension from 65 to 67 last year.
The minister made the comments Monday after he received five new reports from his own advisory council on economic growth, one of which included a recommendation to increase to the eligibility age for both OAS and the Canada Pension Plan.
The report said the ages should be raised so that Canada falls in line with international trends as governments adjust to the fact that people are living longer. The panel also suggested an increase to existing voluntary incentives that offer more generous benefits for seniors who delay retirement.
Mr. Morneau, who is expected to release his 2017 budget soon, gave that suggestion a positive response Monday, while appearing to rule out a mandatory, across-the-board increase to qualifying ages. "We moved the age of the Old Age Security system to age 65 recognizing that a significant number of Canadians are very challenged to work past that time. We also want to be sure that we think about the demographic challenges that are to come," he said. "The recommendation to think about how we can have a [stronger] work force participation among people who are able to do that, that's important for us and we'll take that into consideration."
The retirement-age proposal is just one of many significant policy changes the council recommended Monday as a way of boosting economic growth and preparing Canada for an era of dramatic change in the way Canadians work.
Many of the council's proposals are in line with the government's goals and are likely to find a home in some form in the coming federal budget. The Advisory Council on Economic Growth was appointed last year by Mr. Morneau and its reports are based on months of working directly with federal ministers and senior public servants on options for expanding the economy.
The 14-member council is chaired by Dominic Barton of McKinsey & Co. and is made up of senior business leaders, economists and academics.
In an interview, Mr. Barton said the government should focus on voluntary incentives to encourage seniors to work longer, given the fact that some workers in physically demanding jobs are not able to work beyond 65.
"There are more older Canadians that we think can work and want to work but don't, because the incentives aren't there," he said, suggesting a look at removing pension clawbacks for seniors who return to work. "We didn't get into the detail of how to do it... We're just setting a direction."
The federal Liberals have already fulfilled an election promise to scrap the Conservative government's plan to raise the OAS eligibility age. The government also struck a new deal with the provinces to change the CPP last year that did not touch the eligibility age, which is also set at 65 for full benefits.
Both programs have existing voluntary options that allow Canadians to collect smaller benefits by starting before 65 or larger benefits by starting to collect later.
Conservative finance critic Gérard Deltell said Monday's report vindicates the Conservatives' position. He called on Mr. Morneau to reverse course and admit the Liberals made a mistake.
"We did the right thing, economically and demographically speaking," he said. "We all recognized that it was not, politically speaking, an easy decision to take but it was good for the future of this country."
The call to encourage more seniors to join the work force was part of the council's broader recommendations that Ottawa should increase its efforts to boost labour participation among specific groups, including indigenous peoples, women with young children and lower-income Canadians.
Other major recommendations released Monday included calls for Ottawa to single out specific sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, as engines of future growth; a new focus on innovation that would bring together researchers, entrepreneurs, businesses and their customers in cutting-edge technology sectors to work with government; support for private-sector efforts to create a $1-billion growth fund, which would provide loans to small and medium-sized enterprises; update skills training programs for the "gig" economy in which many Canadians are self-employed and earn a living through contracts and continue to promote trade, with a focus on reaching new deals with China, Japan and India, while helping Canadian firms make the most of existing trade deals.
Mr. Morneau is scheduled to visit Washington later this week to meet with officials from U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, which has said it wants to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement.
Some venture capitalists were disappointed the council didn't endorse their call for a sequel to the last government's $400-million Venture Capital Action Plan funding program, which spurred an additional investment of $900-million from private sources in startups and has helped fuel a revival of venture funding. "VCAP has done some very good things," Mr. Barton told reporters. "What we are suggesting is there are other ways as well to provide capital."
The council's apparent snub "shows a misunderstanding of the ecosystem and the market and what's needed in it," said J.S. Cournoyer, general partner of Real Ventures, one of Canada's busiest early stage investors. He warned that Canadian funds that received VCAP money will have a hard time persuading new investors to finance their next fund without a sequel.
"People will say, 'Why has the government stopped investing in the market? Do they see something we don't see?' "
The council also encouraged government to expand the amount of goods and services it buys from startups.
Many of the council's innovation recommendations reflect initiatives that are already in motion. For example, the government last year allocated $800-million for a "cluster strategy" that seems similar in concept to the innovation marketplaces idea, and the government has been working on improving procurement policies to favour startups.
The Finance Minister has also been actively encouraging Canada's financial institutions to set up a growth fund, while a broad review of all tax-incentive programs by government, including innovation funding initiatives, has been under way since last year.