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Tories play down Flaherty's time frame for OAS changes

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Feb. 7, 2012.

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS/BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

For a brief moment, the fog of confusion hanging over Ottawa's plans for Old Age Security lifted.

It didn't last long.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty appeared to put a time frame on yet-to-be-announced changes to OAS.

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"This is not for tomorrow morning," said the 62-year-old minister, who was joined at an announcement in Oshawa by 52-year-old Conservative MP Colin Carrie. "This is for 2020, 2025 so that people who are middle-age and younger today, like Colin – not me – can be assured that they will have these social programs properly funded, fiscally responsible, that they'll be there for them in the future."

The comments appeared to go much further than anything the government had said to date. If changes are delayed until at least 2020, that would mean Canadians who are 57 or older would not be affected.

But a government spokesman quickly discouraged that kind of math. The official stressed that the comment was simply an effort by Mr. Flaherty to signal that no changes are imminent. In other words, exactly what the government has been saying since Prime Minister Stephen Harper started talking last month about addressing problems in Canada's retirement income system.

Mr. Harper and Human Resources Minister Diane Finley have since confirmed that one option would be to raise the age of eligibility gradually to 67 from the current 65.

Alexandre Laurin, a researcher at the C.D. Howe Institute, points out Mr. Flaherty's time frame raises further questions. Would Ottawa start phasing in a higher retirement age in 2020 or 2025? Or would that be when the changes are fully implemented?

If it's the former, Mr. Laurin said, that would take too long to deal with the government's stated concern: having enough money to cover the cost of the retiring baby boom generation.

"Why are we waiting that long?" he asked.

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The government says changes are needed because as the number of seniors increases, relatively fewer working-age Canadians will be paying taxes to support the higher cost of Canada's social programs.

Opposition MPs insisted on Friday no reforms are needed, pointing to this week's report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer that argues OAS is affordable because Ottawa has acted to curb the rising costs of provincial health care transfers over the long term.

New Democrat MP Wayne Marston is planning to travel the country in an effort to gather reaction from Canadians on the issue. He says MPs are already hearing strong objections.

"We're getting e-mails and phone calls every day," he said.

Liberal finance critic Scott Brison accused the government of "manufacturing a crisis" over OAS, and warned that raising the age of eligibility will hurt poor seniors the most.

"They have not yet provided any credible reason for this," he said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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