Diane Finley had to wrap up her lunchtime address Tuesday before the Fairmont Royal York went ahead with its prearranged fire drill.
But by then, the human resources minister had pulled enough rhetorical alarms to empty a downtown fire hall.
In her demographics tutorial to the Canadian Club, Finley sought to do something the federal government has not done since Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled the Old Age Security card from a hat in Davos almost a month ago — provide some context for voters.
Since his speech to the World Economic Forum, the government has handled the OAS file ineptly, letting the opposition parties frame the debate — or scaremonger, as the government would have you hear it.
Either way, it is something opposition parties are wont to do when a major policy change is tossed out completely unadorned by detail.
For almost a month, the government’s own actuarial tables were used against it to show OAS is sustainable and a similar conclusion by Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page was immediately branded “unreliable” by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
Page argued that by tying future health transfers to economic growth instead of fixed percentages, Ottawa was freeing up the fiscal space needed to sustain OAS.
But Finley turned the argument for OAS changes on its head Tuesday, saying changes to be announced in the federal budget had to be made for tomorrow’s workers and taxpayers.
She painted a picture of a country awash in grey, gasping seniors, more over 65s than under 14s by 2030, with a shrinking tax base, declining birth rate and skilled-worker shortage.
“It’s the next generations of Canadians who will have to shoulder the burden,’’ she said.
“The next generations who will have their own families to raise, their own mortgages to pay, their own student and household debt to manage.’’
This was followed by a somber: “Inaction is simply not an option. Something must be done.’’
But there was more.
We cannot be backed into a choice between the country’s financial security and the commitment to aging Canadians, she said.
Sustainability can be achieved only with higher taxes and structural deficits, she said.
Then the reference to the problem of our “European friends,” followed by the obligatory nuclear option — the throwaway reference to Greece.
Finley’s speech came with MPs back in their ridings and the House of Commons on a week-long break.
It is the reaction from Conservative voters — along with their views on the Internet surveillance bill introduced in an even more ham-handed fashion — that this government is listening for. Both initiatives show a government obsessed with choreography and stage management, suddenly and curiously gone tone deaf, back on its heels against an opposition offensive.
The NDP did dispatch Beaches-East York MP Matthew Kellway for a reality check. He argued again that the Conservatives are wasting money on jets and jails and will push more Canadians into poverty with their OAS plans.
“The claim by the government that we are heading to a crisis is totally unfounded,’’ he said.
A less partisan view surely would be forthcoming from the students arrayed at the luncheon, the ones targeted again and again by Finley, the ones she told to pay attention because this policy is aimed at their generation.
This must have come as a great relief to the lucky students for whom Finley had so much concern, the ones who will be given enough time to rearrange their retirement plans so no one else in the room will have to worry in the short term.
But, alas, we will never know.
The students from Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School of Scarborough, used so expertly by a minister with a message, were barred from talking to the media.
We don’t know about their retirement plans, but they have already been taught a lesson on message control.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. firstname.lastname@example.org