Opposition Day Motion Standing Up for Canadian Seniors

  Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine.

We have heard a great deal today about the OAS but I would like to take this opportunity to remind the House that just this past June we all made a commitment to lift every senior out of poverty. To date, the government has taken no action on that NDP motion and has demonstrated complete disregard for seniors in poverty in Canada. The Conservatives have touted tax breaks and income splitting but neither of these helps those in this country living in or near the poverty line. Tax breaks do not help the poor because their incomes are too low to benefit from any tax break.

Now the government is shifting gears. Instead of ignoring the poor, it is making suggestions that the poor should be the ones to pay for the financial mismanagement of the Conservative government. By suggesting cuts or other such changes to the OAS, the government is chipping away at the security of seniors in this country. Asking the poor to pay while giving tax breaks to the rich is despicable, unacceptable and unfathomable. The rumblings of changes to the OAS show complete disregard for the motion passed unanimously in this House last June. The government is well aware that the OAS and GIS are critical to keeping seniors above the poverty line. The government's own response to the petitions calling on the Conservatives to end seniors' poverty trumpet how successful the OAS and GIS have been in reducing the levels of poverty for our seniors. I do not understand why the Conservatives are trying to create more challenges. Clearly, they do not even believe their own rhetoric.

Over the past couple of weeks, as the NDP seniors critic I have received many emails and letters from seniors across the country reacting to the Prime Minister's suggestion that there may be changes to the old age security. People are outraged and insulted but most of all they are terrified of what the future may hold.

I have heard from seniors living at the poverty line wondering how on earth they will make their monthly payments and afford to buy food if their OAS is cut. Seniors have shared their fear that they may have to return to work but have no idea what kind of job they would do. They have no skills for some of the jobs out there.

 I heard from Nortel workers who have not only lost their jobs but lost significant portions of their pensions and are relying on OAS when they turn 65, just to make ends meet.

People wrote to me concerned about how this would impact first nations who already live in some of the worst living conditions in Canada. How can they be expected to take yet another hit?

I heard from seniors who have been forced to sell their homes because they do not have the money to keep them. They cannot keep them because of the reality of retirement. Our seniors are worried that any changes to the OAS would push them over the edge into poverty.

I heard from one senior who was actually forced to move to the country, far from friends and neighbours because he could not afford to live in the city on his meagre pension. For rural seniors, finding work is not an option. Unemployment is high and competition is fierce for the few available jobs, often seasonal jobs. Services for seniors are reduced in rural areas, thus further adding to the burden of making ends meet. Change to the OAS would be doubly detrimental for them.

People have carefully tried to plan for retirement at age 65. Making changes to the GIS now would have a significant and negative impact on their lives.

Many of those with health problems are already struggling to keep working until they reach age 65. If the government plans to raise the age to receive OAS to 67, this would be a significant burden, in particular for those with little CPP or other pension savings and who are forced to rely on OAS and GIS. The people who rely on OAS are, for the most part, those who have struggled their whole lives. The reason they have not saved is that there is no money to save. Every penny was spent on the necessities of life, raising kids, getting by.

I had people point out in no uncertain terms that changes to the OAS should have been brought up during the election.

What is proposed by the government is a future that is bleak for retirees. How can the Conservatives pretend, just eight months after the last election, that they were taken by surprise by this so-called crisis in the funding of OAS? The scramble that has followed the announcement at Davos and the suggestion that changes will be a few years down the road and seniors now will not be affected is a tactic that will divide future and current seniors.

 I also have letters from younger people, in their forties and fifties, now concerned about what access to OAS they may have when they are ready to retire. They are afraid for their retirement, and they see that the current government is looking to divide Canadians.

The politics of division will not work this time. People have written to me and pointed out the economic benefit the OAS is to all of society. Seniors on OAS spend all of their money in their neighbourhoods. That is money we invested in our economy. OAS is not a burden on the economy. It is an investment in our economy.

 A constituent in my riding of London—Fanshawe has called the government and its actions an abusive act on the average working person. I could not agree more.

I wish to be very clear. The money for OAS is readily available. We have the money to lift seniors out of poverty in the present and the money to address additional expenses the government will face in the future as our population continues to age.

Instead of investing in Canada, the Conservatives chose to saddle the treasury and Canadians with corporation tax giveaways that will not create, and have not created, a single new job.

Seniors represent one of the fastest-growing populations in Canada today. The number of seniors in Canada is projected to increase from about 4.2 million to 9.8 million, from 2005 to 2036. With so many seniors retiring in the years to come, we need to have the social safety net in place now to avoid dramatic increases in the rate of poverty in the future.

 The current government is clearly making the wrong decisions regarding how to care for the increased number of seniors in 2036, and its plan falls far short of what we really need.

We need investment in home care, investment in pharmacare, increased access to resources, appropriate and affordable housing, and investment in geriatric studies. Investment in our communities and in our families are essential.

Our actions now will have an impact on how we treat our seniors in future. If we fail to invest and make plans for aging population, it is our own retirement that will be in jeopardy. Future seniors will not have the choice to age in their homes, will not have access to the care that they need. The concerns for the future are very real.

Today, only 38.5% of Canadian workers have workplace pensions and nearly one-third have no retirement savings at all. More than 3.5 million Canadians are not saving enough in RRSPs for what used to be called their “golden years” and 75% of workers are not even participating in a registered pension plan.

Clearly, the notion that retirement savings can adequately account for retirement through purchases of RRSPs does not work and urgent government action is needed.

 It should further be noted that private retirement savings are concentrated in a small percentage of families. According to Statistics Canada, 25% of families hold 84% of these assets, while 3 out of 10 families have no private pensions at all.

In total, more than a quarter of million seniors live below the poverty line. Since the mid-1990s, incomes of seniors have reached a ceiling, and now there is a gap, a significant gap. Seniors' income increased by about $4,100 while other Canadian households' incomes increased by $9,000. The situation is even more pronounced among seniors living alone.

Seniors have worked hard all their lives. They have played by the rules. Now, they simply want access to the programs and services that their hard-earned tax dollars helped to build. They saved that money. They made that money available. Now, they demand that it be made available to them in their time of need.

 

Mr. Chungsen Leung (Parliamentary Secretary for Multiculturalism, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for London—Fanshawe for the discussion on seniors.

Our government has been clear that we supported seniors, with pension income splitting and the new tax-free savings account. In my riding, good friends like Mr. Bob Weeks spent an entire lifetime building his own house.

As I said, there are four pillars of a retirement income: one is their principal house; the next is their CPP; and then there is the RRSP; and then there is the OAS.

My question for the member is, why did she vote against the GIS increase and the funding for low-income seniors' housing?

 

Ms. Irene Mathyssen: Mr. Speaker, I will point out a number of issues.

Pension splitting is only good for a couple with reasonable assets. If one is single, there is no one to split with.

Tax benefits are non-refundable. They make absolutely no sense because they mean nothing to those with incomes so low that they cannot get the benefits.

In terms of the OAS and the question regarding why we rejected the budget, of course we rejected the budget. We will continue to reject budgets that give $60 billion to the most profitable corporations in this country while cutting and slashing the benefits that the people of this country have paid for, have earned and deserve.

Ms. Kirsty Duncan (Etobicoke North, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for her speech and her compassion. According to experts, the problems being put forth by the government are more apparent than real. The birthrate was three children per woman in the 1950s. It is now about 1.5 children, which is actually less than the population replacement rate of 2.1 babies per woman in the absence of immigration. These facts are already included in pension system projections.

Maintaining pension systems is not so much a matter of actuarial estimates, but rather a matter of governments having the political will to keep public pensions alive and well.

I ask the hon. member if she would outlay what she thinks are the critical questions that should be asked in a national debate on pensions and whether raising the age of eligibility for OAS from 65 to 67 is a fair and equitable solution?

 

Ms. Irene Mathyssen: Mr. Speaker, my esteemed colleague raises some quite important issues in terms of some of the actuarial estimates in regard to what is available and what is not. She is indeed correct that pension plans have built in the reality of this surge in the number of seniors.

We also know that right now 2.4% of our GDP is for OAS for our seniors to live in dignity. By 2030, it is estimated that will rise to a peak of about 3.2% and then will decline. Essentially, what will happen is the government will tell everyone that it cannot afford to give them a proper retirement and will reduce the amount they receive. Then in 2030, there will be a resurgence in terms of government funding. However, we can bet that there will not be a resurgence in the amount given to seniors in terms of OAS. In fact, by 2030 and beyond, they will continue to live in poverty and continue to be ignored.

Right now, 250,000 seniors in the most affluent country in the world are living in poverty. That is a disgrace. That is what this debate is about.