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Pension's in Harper's crosshairs

James Clark

February 2, 2012

Stephen Harper sparked a firestorm in late January, when he warned Canadians to expect sweeping changes to their pensions. Harper made his comments at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where world leaders gathered to discuss the global economic crisis.

Harper targeted Canadians’ pensions as part of a finger-wagging lecture to European heads of state, urging them to embrace deep cuts and harsh austerity measures. His speech blamed Europe’s sovereign debt crisis on public spending for the welfare state: “[I]s it the case, that in the developed world too many of us have, in fact, become complacent about our prosperity, taking our wealth as a given, assuming it is somehow the natural order of things, leaving us instead to focus primarily on our services and entitlements?”

Economists slammed Harper for his comments, saying he clearly didn’t understand what caused the debt crisis: massive bailouts for private banks. But Harper, like most of those gathered at Davos, have been making this argument for years, trying to find an excuse to slash social programs and extend corporate tax cuts. Harper’s attack on Canadian pensions was meant to demonstrate his seriousness about imposing austerity.

Back in Canada, however, a backlash was brewing—and continues to spread. A national debate has erupted about pensions, as seniors and their advocates speculate about the depth of Harper’s cuts. Government insiders have said the Tories want to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67, while restricting eligibility for Old Age Securit and cutting benefits. They claim that income security for seniors is an “unsustainable” entitlement, at the same time as pouring billions into fighter jets and prisons.

NDP finance critic Peter Julian took on the government during Question Period: “A single F-35 costs $450 million. That would pay Old Age Security benefits for 70,000 Canadian seniors. Its prison plan costs $19 billion. That would pay annual benefits for 2.9 million Canadians seniors.” Julian’s comments echo the ongoing campaign by the Canadian Peace Alliance for “Peace and prosperity, not war and austerity” (, which calls for military spending to be redirected toward health, education, seniors and the environment.

As anger spreads, Conservative MPs have been inundated with complaints and condemnation. The Globe and Mail reported that resistance to the cuts is already being felt in the Tory caucus, as MPs struggle to hold back the fury of their constituents. This is a good sign for seniors’ groups, trade unions and pension advocates, who have only just begun to build a united opposition to Harper’s austerity agenda, and who will need a wider movement outside Parliament to stop it in its tracks.

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