The federal Conservative government is proposing a voluntary expansion of the Canada Pension Plan, adding a pre-election twist to the politically charged debate over how best to boost Canadian savings.
Finance Minister Joe Oliver made the announcement Tuesday in the House of Commons, promising that consultations will take place over the summer on the details.
The general premise is that Canadians who choose to pay higher CPP premiums would receive higher guaranteed payments in retirement.
The announcement marks a significant shift for the Conservatives, who have long resisted changes to the CPP on the grounds that higher premiums would represent job-killing payroll taxes.
It also amounts to a key campaign promise because this measure will not be in place before an expected Oct. 19 federal election.
“Our Conservative government believes all Canadians should have options when saving for their future. That is why we intend to consult on giving Canadians the voluntary option to contribute more to the Canada Pension Plan to supplement their retirement savings,” Mr. Oliver said.
Though the announcement represents a significant policy shift, the Finance Minister did not take questions from the media and few details were provided.
This expansion of the CPP on a voluntary, instead of compulsory, basis is an attempt by the Conservatives to offer voters another way to save for retirement without obliging them to do so.
The Tories have been at loggerheads with the opposition parties – and most provinces – over the issue for years.
Labour groups and the seniors advocacy group CARP have long argued that voluntary savings vehicles do not work and that a mandatory CPP expansion is needed to ensure that all Canadians are saving enough for retirement.
The Conservatives have sided with business groups, such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, that argue that increasing mandatory contributions to the CPP by employees and employers would be damaging to the economy.
The CFIB said Tuesday that it was “delighted” by Mr. Oliver’s proposal, provided that it would also be a voluntary decision as to whether or not employers make larger contributions for employees.
Susan Eng, the vice-president of CARP, also responded positively, although she stressed that mandatory increases are still likely to be needed.
Mr. Oliver said the voluntary plan would build on other government initiatives, including tax-free savings accounts and pooled registered pension plans.
He suggested that the Tories give Canadians more choice than the Liberals and the NDP.
However, Liberal finance critic Scott Brison noted it was his party that advocated both a mandatory and a voluntary expansion of the CPP in the 2011 election campaign.
NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen called the move a “deathbed conversion” by the Conservatives.
“You can tell when the government’s serious about something: They ram it through an omnibus bill. When they’re not serious about it, they launch a series of consultations over the summer on the eve of an election as if somehow they were going to be converted at the very last minute,” he said. “This is about polls. It’s about the Conservatives realizing they’re in trouble.”
At one point during the past several years of debate over CPP reform, the Conservatives spoke out against the idea they now propose.
In 2010, Jim Flaherty, then the finance minister, took the view that further voluntary savings vehicles were not enough.
The government later changed course. While Mr. Flaherty briefly advocated for expanded mandatory CPP contributions, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has long opposed the idea in his public comments.
The Ontario government has been among the most vocal advocates urging the federal government to support an expanded CPP. When Ottawa decided against the idea, Ontario proposed its own supplemental pension plan, which would begin in 2017 and would apply only to workers who do not have a company pension plan.
Ontario has suggested that if Ottawa changes its position and decides to support an expanded CPP, it would not go ahead with its own pension plan.
Ontario’s associate finance minister, Mitzie Hunter, described the federal proposal as “disappointing.”
“Two things are clear – people are not saving enough for retirement, and we don’t have a federal partner willing to tackle this problem,” she said in a statement.
BILL CURRY AND STEVEN CHASE
Ottawa — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, May. 26 2015, 2:50 PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, May. 27 2015, 12:06 AM EDT