Mr. Speaker, in case I do not have a chance to speak later on today, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Saskatchewan Roughrider organization and loyal Rider fans everywhere on being successful yesterday in winning the 95th Grey Cup. My wife and my family took to the streets. The Batters family certainly celebrated late into the evening and the Lesiuk family did the same. They joined throngs of people on Albert Street in Regina in celebrating a great win yesterday.
I am pleased to join the debate on Bill C-362 and address the proposals put forward in this bill to amend the Old Age Security Act. I appreciate the hon. member's intentions in proposing a reduction in the residence requirement from 10 years down to three to receive OAS. However, there are several reasons why this is not a sound course of action.
First, let us look at the issues of fairness and equality. Length of residence in Canada has been this program's central eligibility requirement since its inception in 1952. The purpose of the 10 year requirement then, as now, is meant to be a measure of partial income security in recognition of a person's attachment and contribution to Canadian society, our economy and our communities.
It is a perfectly reasonable expectation that people live in this country for a minimum period of time before being granted the right to a lifelong public benefit, since this public benefit is paid entirely from general tax revenue and does not require any direct contribution from its recipients.
The Old Age Security Act has withstood the test of time, even over the course of several Liberal governments. Why do the members opposite pretend to care so much about this issue now? In fact, the sponsor of the bill has even admitted that the previous Liberal government fought seniors groups in court until they ran out of money because the Liberal government believed so strongly in the current program.
The current Old Age Security Act does not discriminate between citizens and non-citizens as the sponsor would have us believe. It is based solely on length of residence and not, as some critics have suggested, on citizenship. In fact, the residence requirement makes no distinction between immigrants who have just arrived in Canada and other Canadians who are returning to Canada after being away. In both cases, applicants must meet the same 10 year requirement.
In my mind, the present system of requiring 10 years of residence is the most fair and equitable criterion for receiving OAS. I am certainly not alone in this belief. Twice, the previous Liberal government defended this issue of fairness in court. Twice, the previous Liberal government's view was upheld when the courts found that the current requirements do not discriminate against applicants on the grounds of national or ethnic origin and do not conflict with the charter.
The old age security system is fair and sound. It provides more than four million seniors in Canada with a retirement income. Its benefits are universally allotted. Yet, it is only one program in Canada's social safety net. There are built-in safeguards for those who do not qualify for OAS through many federal and provincial assistance programs.
Within the public pension system itself, many low income seniors also receive the guaranteed income supplement, or GIS, designated to help Canada's poorest seniors. Here, too, citizenship is not a requirement, only a minimum 10 years' residency and an income below a specific threshold.
Under the current system, every senior has the potential to receive OAS and GIS. This is true even if they arrive in Canada at the age of 60 and never work. By the age of 70, they can begin receiving benefits.
Right now, we have a sustainable and robust pension system. Obviously it is in the interest of all Canadians to ensure that our pension system remains healthy. We know that the requirement for pensions will only grow as our senior population continues to expand. In fact, 25 years from now, nearly one-quarter of Canada's population will be 65 years of age or older. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that the polices that we enact today protect our pension plans in the future.
The Liberals believed these same things a few years ago, but now they appear to have changed their minds. Relaxing the OAS eligibility requirements from 10 to 3 years would have significant fiscal implications for Canada. It is estimated that the consequent costs would be more than $700 million annually in combined OAS and GIS benefits, with approximately $600 million of this amount due to an increase in GIS payments. We cannot in good conscience place this financial strain on our pension system.
As well as our domestic concerns, we must almost consider the effect Bill C-362 would have on the international agreements we now have in place and for those we will be negotiating in the coming years. Fifty countries have established agreements with Canada based on the current 10 year residency requirement. Lowering this requirement by seven years could create a disincentive for other countries considering reciprocal agreements with Canada.
Clearly, there are sound reasons for maintaining the current OAS system. It is fair and equitable. It recognizes the contributions seniors have made to our country. OAS pension benefits are based on residence rather than citizenship or national origin. Also, the OAS program is financially sound. Under the current system, OAS is sustainable. It is our duty as our constituents' representatives to ensure that OAS is there for them when they need it.
I can assure this House and all Canadians that this Conservative government intends to take every measure possible to protect our seniors today and in the future.
We have demonstrated our intentions through such measures as those contained in Bill C-36, which simplify and streamline the OAS and GIS application process.
We have also introduced a number of initiatives, such as the National Seniors Council, aimed at improving the lives of seniors. We have introduced a range of measures to reduce the tax burden on seniors.
We will continue to act to protect seniors and Canada's old age security system. I urge my hon. colleagues to vote against the proposals contained in this bill, just as the Liberals did when they were in power.