More ideological than actuarial

Not too long ago, a once-powerful Republican in the U.S. Congress summed up foreign aid spending this way: “Foreign aid means putting Ghana over grandma.’’

Not too long ago, a once-powerful Republican in the U.S. Congress summed up foreign aid spending this way: “Foreign aid means putting Ghana over grandma.’’

It was Tom DeLay’s colourful way of challenging the Democrats of the day, telling voters that ramped-up foreign aid spending was going to take money from elderly Americans dependent on social security.

It was a more quotable variation on the cynical political adage encapsulated in the “there are no votes in Africa,’’ rationale for a campaigning politician to stay away from lofty foreign aid pronouncements when people have concerns here at home.

The infamous DeLay pronouncement comes to mind as Stephen Harper’s Davos musings over the sustainability of our Old Age Security system bursts into full rhetorical flower on the Canadian political stage.

Just as there are no votes in Africa, there are likely no votes for Harper in revamping our retirement safety net.

And just as DeLay invoked grandma, opposition parties know there is no issue so rich for the mining of indignation than the perceived swipe at that poor old grandmother, bundled in a shawl, tending to her knitting in a rocking chair.

They are finding it tough to get at a prime minister who has turned what were once Canadian political truisms on their head twice in barely a month.

Harper has reached out to touch what are classed as the third rail of politics — health care and seniors’ benefits, programs linked to that third rail — regardless of the commonly-held belief that they would scorch any politician so foolhardy as to tinker with them.

Harper is fundamentally reshaping the delivery of health care in this country, leaving it to the provinces while Ottawa writes the cheques.

Now, in sparking a national debate over the old-age benefits for future generations, Harper has boldly poked the rail again.

It is a rare politician who tackles issues that affect future generations while in office.

It is in the political DNA to kick such issues down the road, focus on the next trip to the ballot box and leave the tough choices for those who assume power with the crisis at the gate.

For political fortitude, Harper deserves full marks.

For the actual policy, judgment has to be reserved until it is fleshed out, likely in the coming budget.

But for the political roll-out of such a hot-button issue, the Conservatives get a failing grade.

While a case can be made for acting now, the Conservatives have not yet made it.

They have told us the cost of Old Age Security will increase from $36 billion in 2010 to $108 billion by 2030, when the number of Canadians past 65 will balloon to 9.3 million from 4.7 million today.

But, as Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells pointed out Tuesday, the actuarial tables presented to Parliament have been showing the same thing for nearly 20 years.

The same study that gave us the Conservative talking points also shows the increase in the percentage of GDP in paying out OAS by 2030 is negligible.

So, in the absence of details, Harper frames the debate as a question of protecting programs for future generations.

But by not filling in the blanks, he lets the opposition frame its side of the debate, whether it be the NDP argument that jets and prisons take precedence over poor seniors or the Liberal argument that this was a broken campaign promise by Harper.

That’s not fear mongering. It’s exploiting the uncertainty left by the government.

Previous attempts at reform were abandoned by Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin in this country and George W. Bush had to abandon his attempt to privatize social security in the U.S.

But Harper will likely ignore the DeLay dictum and move ahead.

And DeLay?

The man known as The Hammer for his rigid control of party discipline is free on bail awaiting appeal of his conviction on money laundering charges that carried with it a three-year prison sentence.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist.

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