OAS reforms move in step with public opinion: polling

New surveys for the government suggest Prime Minister Stephen Harper was tapping into deep anxieties among Canadians when he announced an overhaul Canada’s retirement system.

OTTAWA — New surveys for the government suggest Prime Minister Stephen Harper was tapping into deep anxieties among Canadians when he announced an overhaul Canada’s retirement system.

A few months before Harper told the world in Davos, Switzerland, that Canada’s retirement benefits would not be sustainable without major changes, the public was already telling him it was losing faith in Ottawa’s ability to deal with an aging population.

Polling and focus-group testing for the Privy Council Office point to an overriding concern about aging, and about whether the federal government’s policies were sufficient.

“Across the country participants touched on a series of concerns that revolve around the aging of Canada’s population, and the government’s ability to address the challenges associated with this reality,” says the report by Walker Consulting Group, based on public-opinion research done last August.

In open-ended questions, many respondents told the pollsters that the government needed to pay special attention to pension sustainability and the ability of future generations to support growing numbers of retirees.

In responses from across the county, participants said repeatedly they were concerned about the ability of the health-care system to handle the growing burden that comes with an aging population.

“Whether in B.C., Ontario, or Quebec, the issue of how the health-care system will absorb the increased volume of needs and the nature of those needs from the increasing number of elderly Canadians was the most notable concern across the country,” the report says.

The government received the report just before Christmas.

A month later, Harper used his podium at an exclusive economics gathering in Davos to announce that he, too, was concerned about taxpayers’ ability to finance retirement benefits in the coming decades — and he was preparing to make major changes.

Now, cabinet ministers have indicated that next month’s budget will make clear how the government plans to handle rising costs in the Old Age Security system.

The leading option seems to be an eventual increase in the age of eligibility, to age 67 from age 65 — a move that would not affect anyone close to retirement now, but would prompt some in their mid-50s and younger to stay in the workforce longer, and rely on the public purse less.

Previously, Harper promised repeatedly not to touch transfers to the provinces or to individuals in his efforts to eliminate the deficit.

The consultants polled more than 2,000 randomly selected participants on what they thought were the most pressing issues for the federal government to deal with. They also asked how participants felt about the state of the economy, crime, Canadian history and Arctic sovereignty.

The researchers then followed up with 12 focus groups spread across the country. Half were high-income participants, and the other half grouped low income and middle income.

The report prepared for PCO — the bureaucratic arm of the prime minister’s office — does not break down results by demographic or quantify the responses.

It concludes the Canadian public is concerned about the fragility of the global economy, but relatively confident that Canada would remain stable, especially in the medium- and long-term.

The report says respondents were generally supportive of the government’s deficit-reduction efforts, but were somewhat skeptical of the government’s time frame. They were also adamant that deficit reduction should not be at the cost of funding for health care.

They showed little appetite for more tax cuts. And when asked about the government’s crime agenda, some cities were far more enthusiastic than others. Saskatoon and Montreal wanted to see a get-tough approach to deal with their rising concerns about criminal activity, while North Vancouver, Toronto and Kitchener were far more lukewarm.

But the preoccupations with aging and health rose to the surface with no prompting from the researchers, the report shows.

Indeed, Harper’s musings about OAS have prompted an emotional reaction — as well as a serious policy debate — across the country.

The opposition NDP and Liberals are actively campaigning against raising the age of eligibility. They argue that making retirees wait until they are 67 to collect will hurt the poor and cost the provinces dearly. They also say the changes are not necessary from a fiscal point of view.

The government paid $122,666 for the public-opinion research.

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