October 24, 2014
Check against delivery
I’d like to thank you, first of all, for inviting me to be with you today.
Before I begin, I want to say a few words about the tragic events of this week in Ottawa.
As you all know, our Parliament was attacked this week, and a brave young soldier was murdered in a cowardly act of horrific violence. Corporal Cirillo’s body is being transported on the Highway of Heroes today, from Ottawa to his hometown of Hamilton. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this very difficult moment. Regardless of all else Canadians are feeling, we must remember that today a little boy is really, really missing his dad.
I’ve had chances as Leader of the Liberal Party to meet with tens of thousands of Canadians. People of all ages. Some are quite young, just starting out in their careers, not yet ready to build a family. And others are a little more experienced. I think all of us in this room probably fit into that latter category.
But the common ground we share is vast. You don’t have to look very far to find the many things that bring us together, that unite us, despite the surface differences.
And what’s the one sure thing that a 20-year-old student has in common with a 60-year-old senior? We’re all getting older.
I was a bit surprised when CARP removed all barriers from membership – but at the same time, it makes all the sense in the world.
The challenges that seniors are facing aren’t abstract ones – they are challenges that reside at the heart of our families, our communities, and our own lives, no matter our age.
I’ll be touching on a few of those challenges in my speech today. But before I begin, I want to spend a few minutes talking about where we’re at today, how we got here, and why change is so needed. For your kids, and mine, and every generation that follows.
Where we’re at, less than a year out from our next general election, is a worrisome place.
Now, my Party is doing okay, if polls are anything to go by. Personally, I don’t put too much stock in them. As a former teacher, I like to joke that the only thing that impresses me about the phrase “if an election were held today” is the correct use of the subjunctive.
It’s also gratifying to see so many interested and engaged Canadians coming out to political events, many of them for the very first time. But again, I’m mindful of the fact that that represents a small and self-selecting group of voters. Overall, I’m still worried about the pervasive sense of apathy and cynicism that seems to have taken hold.
It would be great if I could just point fingers and say, “Oh that Mr. Harper, he’s the one to blame.” And don’t get me wrong: I think that the Conservatives’ willful indifference to important issues – everything from missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to the never-ending Senate scandal – contributes to that cynicism.
But the truth is that I think we all have a measure of culpability for this one. Because whatever office we hold, whatever group of citizens we represent, we serve the public.
As far as Canadians are concerned, it’s our job to work together, to look out for their interests, and to help build a country where every person has a real and fair chance at success.
I agree with that view. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I decided to run for public office in the first place. I know that my fellow Liberals – including MPs like Hedy Fry, who is here with us today – feel the same way.
Why is change needed? As I’ve said many times over the past year, Canadians want a better government, not just a different government. They’re tired of leaders who sow discord and seek political gain by exploiting our differences, with no thought given to the many things we hold in common or to the long-term damage they are doing to our democratic institutions and political culture.
But more than that, we need change to ensure that the fundamental promise of Canada endures. The core of Canada’s social contract has always been that our hard work will ensure not only our success, but also the future of our children and grandchildren. And that contract is in jeopardy.
We see that in one of the biggest problems now facing Canadians: lack of income security. Those approaching retirement think of income security in terms of pensions and RRSPs, but when you look at long-term economic trends, it’s a miracle we’ve been able to save at all.
That’s because middle class Canadians haven’t had a decent raise in a generation. Over the last 30 years, Canada’s economy has more than doubled in size. But middle class family incomes? They’ve only risen by about 15% since the early 1980s.
At the same time, Canadian families are struggling under mounting household debt, and we’re not saving what we need to – for our kids’ education or for our retirement. CIBC estimates that the average 35-year-old now puts aside less than half of what their parents did at the same age.
That’s why I think a conversation about the strengthening – and growing – the middle class is so critical. Not because it’s politically expedient, but because it’s central to our future prosperity as a nation. Today, too few Canadians feel truly secure about their standard of living and their ability to do better in the years ahead.
Organizations like CARP understand this. I’m sure you’re hearing many of the same concerns from your membership that I’m hearing from the Canadians I’m meeting every single day. Things like:
Can we afford to help send our kids – or our grandkids – to college or university?
When they graduate, will they be able to find decent, well-paying jobs? Ones that pay well enough for them to move out of the basement for good?
Can we afford to retire after all our years of hard work? Or will we saddle our own kids with more debt as they care for us in our later years?
And will our universal healthcare system be able to meet our future needs – not only those of an aging population, but of all Canadians?
These are the questions that weigh heavily on the minds and in the hearts of Canada’s middle class, and all those who work hard to join it. This is especially true for those in the aptly-named “sandwich generation,” who face some difficult choices as they try to offer the best care to their children and their own aging parents.
For its part, the government has done very, very little to offer the reassurance Canadians are seeking.
Two years ago, without consultation or warning, they raised the age of eligibility for Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement from 65 to 67. They did this even though the Parliamentary Budget Officer has shown that our Old Age Security program is sustainable.
I’ve heard a lot of people calling for the pillars of retirement security to be strengthened. I’ve not met one person who says they should be weakened, yet that’s exactly what the Harper Conservatives’ mean-spirited attacks on seniors will do. We’ll see more Canadian seniors living in poverty. More Canadian seniors forced onto provincial social assistance.
I believe, and the Party that I lead believes, that all Canadians deserve a secure and dignified retirement after a lifetime of hard work.
But how can we begin to meet that goal when Old Age Security, the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and the Canada Pension Plan combined don’t meet that bar? When only about a quarter of working Canadians have access to an employer-sponsored plan to help supplement their retirement income?
As an immediate first step, a Liberal government led by me would restore the starting age for Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement to 65.
The bottom line is that too many Canadians don’t know when they’ll be able to retire, and in some cases, if they’ll able to afford to retire at all. That’s not right. The government has a responsibility to sit down with the provinces and find a solution to this shared problem.
The good news is that our CPP contributions are a trusted, reliable tool for all of us to save for our retirement. The even better news is that with a healthy balance sheet, and a proven track record, CPP can continue to provide income security for future generations. It’s a made-in-Canada program that other developed nations look at with envy.
But despite its success, and despite an emerging consensus among the provinces that further strengthening is needed, the federal government outright rejects calls to enhance the Canada Pension Plan.
In fact, they went so far as to say that when Canadians save for their retirement through CPP contributions, it’s bad for the economy. That’s something Mr. Hudak and the provincial Conservatives echoed during Ontario’s recent election.
They don’t understand – or they choose to ignore – something that CARP grasps so clearly: that Canadians need to save more now, and that collectively, we need to ensure that Canadians have enough waiting for them to retire with dignity.
And the provinces want to have this discussion. Business and labour leaders want to have this discussion. Canadians want to have this conversation.
It’s only the Harper Conservatives who refuse to give this issue the time and attention it deserves. It’s Mr. Harper who has, once again, invoked his “my way or the highway” approach to federal-provincial negotiations.
To their credit, the provinces recognize the seriousness of the situation and are moving ahead with their own plans, not content to let their citizens fall through the cracks created by Mr. Harper’s lack of leadership.
Here in Ontario, Premier Wynne won a majority government, in no small part because Ontarians believed in her vision for strengthening retirement security through the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. I was proud to stand with her in that campaign.
But there is no reason why the provinces should have to go it alone. Under my leadership, they wouldn’t have to.
Those provinces, like Ontario, that are moving forward with their own solutions on pensions are doing so because the federal government has left the playing field. Provinces like Ontario continue to say that a strengthened national system of retirement security is the best option. Under my leadership, they will get it.
As Prime Minister, I would work with the provinces and territories, with workers, with employers and with organizations like CARP to enhance the Canada Pension Plan.
This will not prevent us from also expanding and creating alternative vehicles for retirement savings to complement the CPP, but the CPP itself must be enhanced.
Mr. Harper and his Conservatives are clearly out of touch with Canadians on this issue.
A Liberal government will take this issue seriously. We understand how important this is to Canadians, and we will work with other governments to increase income security for Canada’s seniors – now and in the future.
I know that the promise of a secure retirement, free from poverty or financial worry, is important to Canadians of all ages. Reducing the anxiety that many Canadians feel about their retirement is not just an issue for older Canadians. It is an issue for all Canadians.
The fact that CARP members are championing reform speaks to its importance across generations, and to your selfless spirit. Thank you for keeping this issue at the fore.
Before moving on from income security, though, there is one thing I’d like to clear up. You may have heard from some misleading stories about my position on pension income splitting for seniors.
Back in September, I reiterated my concerns about the Conservatives’ plan to extend income splitting to families with children under the age of 18. That’s because reports from a wide range of sources – from the Parliamentary Budget Officer to the C.D. Howe Institute to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – all point the same problem: that this plan would help only 15% of Canadian households, and that the lion’s share of that benefit would go to Canada’s wealthiest families. Even the late Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, said that he wasn’t sure “that overall it benefits our society.”
As one might expect, Mr. Harper’s team immediately cropped my quote, cutting out the clear reference to parental income splitting, and telling their supporters I’d pledged to reverse pension income splitting.
And you wonder why people are so cynical about politics.
So let’s get this on the record once and for all: as much as the Conservatives might wish they had the power to control every piece of policy that comes out of Ottawa, they won’t be writing the Liberal Party’s platform. We will not end pension income splitting for seniors.
A second area of concern, and a significant one for all Canadians, has to do with health care.
It was 10 years ago last month that Prime Minister Paul Martin sat down with provincial and territorial premiers, as well as Aboriginal leaders across the country, and started a conversation about how to strengthen health care in this country. About how to ensure that Canadians would be able to access the high-quality care they need, when they need it.
I’ve talked with some of the people who were around that table. I know that the three days of negotiation that followed were tough. There was even some “unparliamentary language” caught on tape.
But at the end of those talks, the premiers and the Prime Minister delivered to Canadians the Canada Health Accord: a 10-year deal that would boost federal transfer payments and set national goals for the health care measures that matter most to Canadians – things like wait times, and access to family doctors, home care, and lower-cost prescription drugs.
A decade later, even the Accord’s strongest proponents admit that it wasn’t perfect – but it did make real, positive progress. Wait times came down across the country, especially here in Ontario. More Canadians found primary care givers, again, especially here in Ontario.
When it was time to sit down with the provinces and territories again, and work through the next round of shared commitments, Prime Minister Harper was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he sent his Finance Minister, who delivered an all-or-nothing deal: no conversation, no consultation, and no indication that they wanted to take any ownership of the issue beyond simply writing a cheque.
It’s hard to believe, but Mr. Harper has been Prime Minister for nearly nine years, and in that time he has never sat down with provincial and territorial leaders to discuss the health-care system. Not once.
It’s no secret that the Prime Minister has a very busy schedule. That on any given day he might need to address the health of our economy, issues of national security, and a dozen other legitimate priorities.
But he’s had almost nine years and never has health care made the cut.
I know – and you know – that health care is fundamental. It touches all of us. Whether the care being delivered is prenatal or palliative, health care is a life-long concern for Canadians. It’s a top concern for those who find themselves in the position of caring for loved ones, and for those who have devoted their professional lives to care. The sacrifices they make are immense.
Canadians expect the federal government to offer leadership on this issue, and the provinces and territories deserve a true partner in Ottawa. One who recognizes that mental health issues, like PTSD, and brain health issues, like dementia, deserve greater care and consideration. One who understands that the demographic shift is already upon us, and requires a serious and substantial response.
That’s why I’m committed, if elected Prime Minister, to meeting with the premiers to talk about how to strengthen health care. To figure out where they need help, how we can help them, and where we can make measurable progress on the issues that matter to Canadians. Things like wait times, the affordability of prescription drugs, and the availability of homecare.
Knowing the demographic challenges we’re facing, we need to take a hard look at new models of care. How can we adapt the services we provide to care for more seniors in their homes, in their communities? How can we make this available to more Canadians – not just those who can afford it, or those who are fortunate to live in a place where this kind of care is the norm?
There’s also a compelling economic case for this kind of shift. It costs as much as $2,000 a day to care for a patient in hospital, versus $200 a day for home or community care. Providing home- and community-based services would be more cost effective and could provide better outcomes for patients, while freeing up overcrowded hospitals so that they can better provide the urgent, acute, and emergency care we all rely on.
The rising cost of prescription drugs is also adding to the financial burden facing middle class families. Not to mention the fact that there are more than 3.5 million Canadians who have inadequate drug coverage, or no coverage at all.
Absent federal leadership, last year, nine of the ten provinces got together and formed the Pan-Canadian Pricing Alliance, a group seeking to provide lower, more consistent drug pricing, better access to drug options, and more consistent coverage across the country.
Through their bulk-purchasing efforts, they’ve already had some success in lowering the cost of the six medications that account for one-fifth of publicly-funded spending on drugs. But as a recent report indicated, there is still a long way to go and the federal government should be working with the provinces and territories to get us there.
Finally, some serious thought must be given to ways we can support affordable housing options for seniors. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution. For some, an affordable option would involve retrofitting their home for accessibility; for others, moving into assisted housing might be more appropriate. And for others, the flexibility of co-op housing offers a gentle, affordable way to “age in place.”
However we approach this challenge, making sure that seniors have affordable housing, helping them to stay close to their families and friends, in their communities – it doesn’t just benefit seniors. It benefits us all.
Income security, health care, and affordable housing – those are just three of the concerns that CARP and the Liberal Party share. I’m sure there are many more and I look forward to hearing your questions in just a few minutes.
I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Moses Znaimer, Ross Mayot, and Susan Eng for asking me to join you today, and I’d like to thank each of you for your time and attention.
If there is one thing that I hope you’ll take away from my comments, it’s this: that despite the cynicism and the apathy, there are many Canadians – and I’m among them – who believe that government can be a force for positive change.
If we work together – towns and cities, politicians, engaged citizens of all ages – there’s no challenge we can’t meet, no problem we can’t solve.
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