Mr. Speaker, I concur with my colleague from Qu'Appelle with respect to where this piece of legislation has initiated. If it is all right with the Speaker I would like to talk about why I believe this piece of legislation will not improve pension benefits for senior citizens.
Not acting on opportunities to improve pensions and therefore benefits simply adds to the financial struggles of too many vulnerable people. It is beyond me how this can be the goal of any Canadian government. If the letters I am getting from seniors are any indication, the government will have a lot of explaining to do during the next election.
This bill is part and parcel of the government's piecemeal approach to updating the public pension system. The entire set of proposals from the Canada pension to senior benefits has met with opposition from the business community and seniors. The seniors benefit proposal has universally been characterized as too complicated and unworkable by financial planners.
Maybe that is why the finance department has been up to its elbows in a redesign that has no end in sight. The cornerstone of this half finished pension reform is an unqualified failure and the entire policy has no integrity. The finance minister knows that seniors are watching every stumble.
The bill before us provided an opportunity to diminish the government's attack on older Canadians who have claimed what author John Myles calls the citizen's right to cease work before wearing out.
However, in Bill S-3 the government is proposing a mechanism to take the surplus out of private pension plans rather than offer incentives to improve pension plans. This is the wrong message to send. The government's role is simply to do what it can to add to the quality of life of citizens. It can do so by encouraging the improvement and strengthening of pension funds in an attempt to increase benefits.
Pensions and medicare have institutionalized the concept of retirement. Imagine a society where retirement is not institutionalized, where we are not granted the right to a peaceful time in our final years, free from the struggle of the labour market. We have this right today and cutting pensions is an attempt to take that away. To deinstitutionalize retirement, destroying the institution of retirement one pension cut at a time means a person never stops working regardless of age or health.
The evidence is irrefutable that the private sector does not provide enough money by age 65 to create a suitable retirement nest egg for the vast majority of Canadians. This is why there has been consistent public pressure throughout the 20th century for the government to step in. Now it is stepping back from that mandate and the result is clear.
If hon. members go to fast food restaurants and shopping malls they will see some seniors who want to be working, but they will mostly see seniors who have no choice but to stay on the job.
The destruction of retirement, one pension cut at a time, is big brother's right wing dream of social engineering, a sick utopia being administered by the finance department. Canadians do not want the finance department carrying out centrally planned social engineering experiments on their senior citizens. They want pensions the way they were working well before these experiments became so fashionable in corporate and government boardrooms.
If there is one constant theme in the government's scorched earth campaign against the long held Canadian consensus in favour of public pensions it is a complete lack of interest in making life better for seniors. We have seen it with the Canada pension plan where seniors' hopes for a little more money so some can literally turn up the heat another degree next winter were put through the shredder at the finance department. Hopefully it is using the same shredder on the proposed seniors benefit.
The seniors benefit is like some foul monster worthy of the X Files television program, speaking a language that even financial planners cannot understand and striking fear into the hearts of seniors everywhere.
Again the government is slashing benefits by cancelling the old age security and guaranteed income supplement and letting loose the cynically titled seniors benefit.
It should be pointed out that although the government's plan to institute a seniors benefit has been stopped dead in its tracks at least for a while, this did not come about because the government was sensitive to the needs of seniors. The government was unmoved by the outcry from seniors groups and their disbelief on seeing the planned benefit.
No, it was the outcry of wealthy Canadians through their financial planners who said this plan makes it difficult to organize the complicated financial affairs of better off retirees. This group saw the losses involved and together with lower income Canadians delivered a universal message. Thankfully this wretched seniors benefit has been put on hold, and that is the strength of universality.
A nation is not a thing to be divided and conquered by its own government. We are a nation of citizens who deserve to be treated with equal respect. Universality is about equality and balance and the government's approach to destroy universality by expanding means testing for pensions through the seniors benefit has simply upset the fine balance of universality and equality born from the Canadian soul and enshrined in the institution of retirement that we have erected as a symbol of our nation. To dismantle these things is to dismantle Canada.
Bill S-3 has some good intentions. The bill strives to set clear ground rules for housekeeping, restores a better balance between the employer and those who benefit from the pension plan and enhances the ability of the minister to enter into agreements with provinces to apply and enforce a province's pension legislation.
However, the bill also adds unaccountable power to bureaucrats in the name of lowering costs and only addresses the issue of taking a surplus out of a pension fund. This is what most seniors and future seniors are concerned with.
Bill S-3 is an opportunity for the government to address the need to use the surplus wisely. There could have been something in the legislation which encourages pension fund managers to find constructive ways to use any surplus, to perhaps leave the surplus in a fund for the good of those who receive benefits. But the legislation does not do that, which is a shame.
We should be improving benefits or striving to improve benefits. After all, the goal here is to improve the quality of life of our senior citizens.
The government cannot even be bothered to appear to be striving to improve benefits. Clearly, a discussion on how to use any surplus for the good of beneficiaries is lacking in this bill.
Canadians are a prudent people. We like to know there is money in the bank for a rainy day. Statistics show that for the vast majority of seniors old age is that rainy day.
In December Statistics Canada announced a 2% rise in the rate of seniors' poverty over many years of decline, largely attributed to the long established pensions in the country. However, that is not the most telling statistic.
I will quote from a StatsCan report. It states:
A large percentage of the elderly population have incomes near the low income cut-offs. Consequently, rates for seniors are particularly sensitive to small income shifts. The rise in the elderly low income rate reflects the fact that more seniors fell just short of the cut-offs.
Senior citizens are hanging on by a thread in a world where governments are cutting pensions. The government is making cheaper medicine more difficult to obtain and social assistance for the victims of this wild west economy is being rolled up into meaningless tax cuts just so the wealthy can smoke a few more cigars.
The StatsCan report of just five months ago, three days before Christmas, makes it clear that seniors are amassing on the last rung of the economic ladder. It reminds me of the hundreds of thousands of refugees amassing in the city of Dunkirk during the second world war with nowhere to go, looking across the sea for any sign of hope.
This government has millions of economic refugees staring at it through wizened eyes and all the government can think about is who will blink first. It is shameful. This is not about blinking, it is about eating and staying healthy and warm.
There was recently an elderly gentleman from Cape Breton who had to resort to a public plea over radio for help. Unable to pay for his expensive heart medication and facing a refusal for help from the cash starved provincial health plan, the man said he expected to die the next day.
Faced with a member of their community dying in such appalling circumstances, Cape Bretoners responded, as they always do in Atlantic Canada, with generosity. The senior is now being taken care of, but for how long?
What about the thousands of others we know are suffering the same indignities across this country? If the government does not care about them, who will? It will not be multinational drug companies or the multinational insurance corporations. I doubt it will be the banks who are bent on service charging senior citizens right into the grave. The banks are probably the ones who came up with the phrase “You can't take it with you”.
This is the job of the government. If the government is going to treat people the way corporations do, then why have a government? It seems the marketplace is crowded with organizations trying to figure out ways to get their hands on people's money in exchange for nothing but promises and apologies.
Seniors were not born yesterday. They know the government should return to its only market niche of good government, adding to the quality of life of its citizens. Why will the government not through this legislation encourage pension managers to search for ways to increase benefits and help seniors become more independent? This bill makes the improvement of pension plans unlikely and that makes seniors and future seniors less secure. So why bother?
It is part of this government's disturbing pattern of behaviour in the area of pensions. Why did this government announce it was going to cancel the old age security and guaranteed income supplement which Canadians knew they could use as a building block for their retirement, a building block that would not shrink every time they earned a dollar of their own through an RRSP or some other form of investment? Why does the government plan to replace it with a seniors benefit which will give a couple about $18,000 and then take away every dollar of seniors benefit for every dollar earned?
It seems that the government has taken its cue from thieves lurking around banking machines, lying in wait for senior citizens. Seniors are only withdrawing their own money paid through pension contributions and taxes.
Why is the government forcing seniors to work harder, making it harder for them to earn money for their final years, and then taking away their pension, dollar for dollar, with the seniors benefit? Why has the government put senior citizens on a treadmill? Senior citizens do not need to be on a treadmill. They have worked hard all their lives. They have paid taxes. They have defended this country, with their lives in many instances. They have raised families, built businesses, passed on their lessons learned and made their communities better places for all of us. After all that, all the government can come up with in terms of social policy for seniors is to put them on a treadmill.
I think the finance minister needs an education. He needs to learn that senior citizens have a right to cease work and he has a responsibility to ensure that when the private sector uses them up and throws them away it is his responsibility to take them in and thank them for the contribution they have made to this country. That is his job.
We are compassionate people and a Canadian government devoid of compassion is un-Canadian. This is the unseverable cord of this nation's definition of patriotism.
The Minister of Finance says that all of these pension initiatives are designed to maintain the viability of benefits for seniors. If he can maintain them, then he can surely role up his sleeves, get to work and go one step further to improve them. If he does not like the idea of improving benefits, he should step aside and allow someone else who has the stomach for the job to do it.
How can anyone not be interested in caring for the elderly in this country? How can you say no to that? How can you not want to improve pensions and benefits and improve the lives of our wonderful senior citizens?
People who cannot bring themselves to care for senior citizens should think of this. We are all pretending here. We are all senior citizens. We run pensions at our own peril. We are hurting ourselves because we all have our senior years to look forward to. That is who we are hurting when this House passes legislation like the recent downsizing of the Canada pension plan benefits program and, God forbid, the seniors benefit.
How can the government on the one hand slash the Canada pension plan, old age security and the guaranteed income supplement by claiming it is running out of money and then present this bill today with no encouragement to improve pension funds? Is that how we want to teach our children to handle finances? As soon as you get ahead, just throw your money away.
The government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth and seniors have stopped listening. The government should give senior citizens a little more credit.