moved that Bill C-301, an act to amend the Income Tax Act and to make a related amendment to another act (registered retirement income fund), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, it is my honour to rise today to speak to my private member's bill, and also to interrupt my colleague's rant from across the floor, Bill C-301, the RRIF financial security act to remove the mandatory minimum withdrawal for seniors holding a registered retirement income fund account.
As members of the House should know, retirement is daunting. Planning for life after work is not easy, it is not cheap, and it is not always predictable. The Canadian government has taken great strides throughout the past decade to alleviate the stress of retirement, including increasing the guaranteed income supplement, creating tax-free savings accounts, and introducing income splitting for seniors. The previous government also took an important step forward in helping Canadians by lowering the mandatory withdrawal rate for seniors who held an RRIF.
These measures have led to the lowest poverty rate ever among seniors in Canada. This is a record of which to be proud.
There are still some seniors unable to fully and happily live out their retirement, knowing their savings are sufficient and secure. This is where we must focus our attention. They need our attention, not just in the long term, not just in the next 40 years but now. Removing the mandatory minimum withdrawal on registered retirement income funds will help all of our seniors today.
This legislation would fix an outdated structure that needlessly penalizes Canadians who have spent their lifetime saving for retirement. The probability today of a 71-year-old female living to 94 has almost doubled since 1992. For men, the probability has almost tripled. In the same time, the average return on long-term Government of Canada bonds has decreased by almost two-thirds. In 1992, a 71-year-old woman making minimum withdrawals could expect to use about two-fifths of her savings before reaching her life expectancy. Today, she needs to plan to use about twice as much. She faces a one-in-four chance of outliving her savings entirely. As her life expectancy continues to increase and the average returns continue to decrease, the problem is clear. Too many seniors are outliving their savings because of these archaic rules.
The budget 2015 reduction in the RRIF withdrawal rate was a step in the right direction. However, this response does not go far enough.
The issue that the reduction started to address was the idea that circumstances change. This is true of most private living. However, because government is a removed, cumbersome institution, it cannot possibly react as quickly as individuals can to changing life circumstances. When something unexpected happens, such as, happily, we live longer than we expected, or if our loved one needs late-in-life care, or if we simply want to enjoy our retirement knowing that our income is safe and accounted for, there is no good reason to force us to prematurely withdraw our savings and be taxed.
As mentioned, budget 2015 was a good first step. A lower mandatory withdrawal rate is better, but gone entirely is ideal. Ideal is rarely achieved, however, and we compromise on the ideal solution when it is infeasible, impractical, or undesired. In the case of mandatory withdrawals, however, there are no grounds for compromise. The fact is that a change like this is neither infeasible nor impractical. Nor are the changes undesirable.
In fact, when I was president of the Greater Victoria Eldercare Foundation, a foundation looking after six hospitals for seniors, the elderly, and the severely disabled, my colleagues and I understood that RRIF mandatory withdrawals were an unnecessary and punitive regime.
While meeting constituents in my riding of Edmonton West, the seniors I spoke with were overwhelmingly in favour of such a change.
Since introducing this bill to the House back in September, my office has received an enormous amount of calls from seniors across the country in support of this bill, the bill that would return control over their retirement, seniors like Bert and Mary Meeker who are continuously forced to take more money than they need from their RRIFs and, consequently, must pay more in taxes.
I know the government loves raising taxes, but surely even it would agree that forcing seniors to pay higher taxes is unreasonable.
Speaking to the broad spectrum of support for the measures enacted by this bill, both the C.D. Howe Institute and the Canadian Association for Retired Persons, or CARP, have indicated their support for removing mandatory minimum withdrawal rates entirely, after long calling for these changes.
When C.D. Howe released its 2014 report calling for the removal of the mandatory withdrawals, the Toronto Star newspaper collected reader responses. I would like to share what the Toronto Star readership thought of the proposal.
One reader said, “Why does the government need to run down tax-deferred assets so quickly? After saving for 40 years, you'd like to hold onto your money till you kick the bucket.”
Another reader said, “Let me keep my money and use it until I die. Then the government can collect the taxes on what remains.”
A third concerned reader wrote:
I maximized my RRSP contributions for many years until I retired at 66. I've always been a conservative investor. At age 71 when I converted my RRSPs to RRIFs, I was dismayed to see the compulsory withdrawals starting at 7.38% and increasing annually on a steadily diminishing amount because of low interest rates.
It would be better to do away with the minimum withdrawals and allow individuals to manage their RRIF portfolio according to needs and market conditions. Most people would still withdraw something.
When we have a coalition of CARP, the C.D. Howe Institute, and the readers of the Toronto Star on the same side of an issue, it is probably a good policy and worth doing.
Why might seniors' advocacy groups, think tanks, and Canadians across the country support this legislation? It is because it addresses three specific harms brought by the existing out-of-date rules: supplement clawbacks, low-income seniors paying proportionally higher taxes, and harm to working seniors.
First, mandatory withdrawals trigger clawbacks of federal and provincial income supplements such as OAS, GIS, and provincial rent subsidies. Given that forced withdrawals count as income, they indiscriminately factor into income supplement eligibility.
This clawback happens whether people withdraw from a fund worth $50,000 or $1 million, despite the fact that a $50,000-account holder is substantially more likely to rely on income supplements in retirement than the $1-million account holder. More importantly, however, the clawback happens without regard for the notion that the $50,000 might be budgeted for other major expenses.
Seniors like Pat Forrest, who wrote to my office regarding this bill, experience the harmful effects of forced withdrawals on a yearly basis. Since Pat turned 72 and had to convert her RRSP into a RRIF and begin withdrawing from her fund, she has lost her OAS.
It is a nice fantasy that seniors can live out their days comfortably. Reality demonstrates that dying is one of the most expensive acts we will undergo in our lives, and end-of-life expenses are a real, significant budgetary item we must all account for when planning our retirement. For some seniors, that planning includes holding RRIF savings until these expenses come due and utilizing income supplements in the meantime as income for day-to-day living. The mandatory withdrawals remove this ability to save and plan for large expenses later in life without providing a meaningful supplement.
Second, through this clawback setup, low-income seniors pay an effectively higher tax rate. Just to be clear, mandatory withdrawals do not necessarily result in a higher actual tax percentage but rather in a higher hit to one's net cash at the end of the year. For example, if one withdraws $10,000 from a RRIF at some point in the year, it counts as income. Therefore, one would lose part of one's OAS and other federal and provincial benefits, which would effectively be about a 50% tax hit. A wealthier account holder who withdrew $100,000 would lose about the same amount in government benefits, which would result in about a 5% hit. The benefit structure is regressive and unfairly targets low-income seniors with no reasonable mechanism to account for lost benefits.
Lastly, the existing structure double penalizes seniors who wish to or need to continue working. According to multiple studies and reports, including a 2011 report on retirement by Statistics Canada, more and more Canadians are working beyond the traditional retirement age, either by choice or by necessity. Forcing them to withdraw taxable income from their RRIFs will push them into a higher tax bracket on income they are earning from work, and this is on top of the taxes they are already incurring and the increased benefit clawbacks.
These three harms have a significant impact on how seniors and working Canadians plan on saving for retirement. These punitive outcomes are needless but not permanent. Eliminating the mandatory withdrawal requirement will go a long way to ensuring that Canadians can live out retirement more comfortably.
I know what my colleagues opposite are going to say. They are going to try to argue that this benefits the wealthy. They are going to say that forced withdrawals do not mean forced spending and that seniors can simply reinvest their money. Let me pre-empt these baseless criticisms.
First, these changes do not uniquely alter the thinking process for wealthy Canadians to shield their income. If wealthy seniors want to shield income and plan for retirement, they can do so already under existing rules. This legislation does not make it uniquely easier for wealthy Canadians to circumvent the rules and hide from paying taxes.
In fact, the potential benefit of enabling seniors to continue with their savings invested rather than forcing them to prematurely sell their investments could actually increase the government's tax revenues once an account holder passes away. We must not forget that RRSPs and RRIFs are not permanent accounts. Taxes will be paid eventually. The taxman always gets his pound of flesh. This legislation ensures that we are not unfairly punishing seniors so that the government can be paid a little today.
The second point, to borrow a phrase from CARP, is that “re-investing is not just that easy”. While forced withdrawals are not the same thing as forced spending, the idea that seniors should simply re-invest their money is disingenuous at best. According to CARP, “this approach ignores the effect of taxation on each withdrawal and the loss of investment scale that occurs when funds are diverted from a larger pool of investments into smaller accounts”.
Moreover, forcing individuals to withdraw funds ignores the effects of market timing. It is financially imprudent to require a senior to withdraw a certain sum of their savings if the market is not performing well, forcing the account holder to sell investments at a lower return than they might otherwise have earned.
Let us make sure we have something clear here: seniors today are from a different generation, one in which saving for retirement, saving for a home, saving for anything was a way of life. Having a healthy RRSP or RRIF does not mean an individual is rich. It means they scrimped, saved, and worked incredibly hard to ensure they had enough to prepare for the days when they could not work any longer.
Arguing that a policy like this is a tax break for the rich not only minimizes the hardships faced by real seniors across all income levels, but in fact also assumes that any senior who has taken the overtime, the double shifts, the holiday shifts, and forgone many opportunities in order to save for their retirement must be wealthy and does not deserve to control their income. We know that this is not the case. We know that seniors are struggling, and we know that Canadians deserve better.
None of these trends I have noted in my remarks are expected to reverse. Canadians are not expected to lose years of their life expectancy over the coming decades, nor are investments predicted to earn any more than they do presently. Canadians are predicted to work longer. Canadians are healthier than ever before, and financial retirement planning becomes more pertinent given a longer lifespan.
Government is slow to react. This is not meant as a criticism, but is simply a factual statement. Things take longer to get done when it is the government that is doing them. In the meantime, seniors suffer, Canadians face uncertainty, and no one can adequately plan for their retirement while they wait for the government to react.
We are all going to be seniors at some point, and some of us are closer to that reality than others. This is not an arm's-length issue. Any one of us could get that call from mom asking for help because her monthly GIS or OAS was taken away due to end of year income she did not need, even though she reinvested the money. It could be me, it could be any of the members in this place in 10, 15, or 20 years.
There is only one solution: eliminate the mandatory withdrawal. Stop punishing seniors for saving, and enable Canadians to manage their retirement as they see fit. Enact this broadly supported and sound legislation.
For seniors now and tomorrow, it's time to take the next step and finish the job.