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Hands off Old Age Security: NDP critic tells Victoria audience

Feb 14 2012

Canada can afford to let its seniors retire at age 65 with the country's Old Age Security pension intact, Irene Mathyssen, federal NDP critic for seniors, told an elderly audience in Victoria Monday.

"We can afford this," Mathyssen told more than 50 people gathered at James Bay New Horizons activity centre.

A team of NDP MPs is touring the country in response to indications from the Conservative government that it could raise eligibility for the Old Age Security pension to age 67.

The monthly benefit is available to most Canadian citizens starting at 65.

The Conservative government has suggested changes are necessary because of Canada's aging population and to ensure sustainability of the country's social programs.

In 2005, there were 4.8 million seniors in Canada. It is estimated that by 2036, there will 9.8 million seniors.

The government says the cost of the OAS, without reforms, will soar to $108 billion in 2030 from $36.5 billion in 2010.

But Mathyssen said: "The OAS is sustainable. The Canada Pension Plan is in good shape. And not only can we look after our seniors - we must."

The NDP wants to expand the Canada Pension Plan through an increase in premiums and raise the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors living in poverty.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in a recent speech in Davos, Switzerland, that the future costs of Canada's pension system would be scaled back to keep it affordable, it stirred up a political storm.

"We have to plan for this," Mathyssen said in an interview. "What this bunch is saying is: 'The sky is falling.' "

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will introduce his next budget in March.

The finance minister seemed to suggest Friday that planned changes to the pension system will be phased in and won't occur before 2020 - which means Canadians 57 and older would not be affected by the cutbacks.

Victoria retiree Gudrun Leys, who noted she is a supporter and volunteer for the NDP, said she doesn't see a problem with raising the OAS eligibility age. She said the normal retirement age in the U.S. and Norway is 67.

Leys also suggested well-off seniors should opt out of the benefit to "redistribute it to people who really need it."

Seniors with an individual income of $69,562 have to repay some of their benefits. Those with a net income of $112,772 lose the benefit altogether.

Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca NDP MP Randall Garrison told the audience that the Harper government has manufactured this OAS "crisis" to divide Canadians. The OAS is part of our "national heritage," he said.

The NDP points to last week's report by Canada's parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, who said the country's OAS program can responsibly continue on its current path.

In 1990-91, elderly benefits accounted for 4.6 per cent of GDP, compared with the 2.2. per cent it soaked up in 2010-11, Mathyssen said.

There was no crisis and no hysteria, and we managed then, she said.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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