Speech abroad unlikely to impress retirees

There are right ways and wrong ways to do certain important things.

For example, if you are going to break up with someone, it’s generally accepted that doing so face to face is significantly more respectful than, say, e-mailing.

It’s also better than breaking bad news during a speech delivered on the other side of the world.

Yet that was prime minister Stephen Harper’s venue —specifically, Davos, Switzerland — for telling Canadians that he is planning changes to unfunded pension support. Namely, he is intending to cut the Old Age Security program and hinting at raising the eligibility age.

It’s slightly more than $500 per month but still makes a difference to many seniors, and not just those living near the poverty line, either.

His point that the number of Canadians who will be applying for OAS in the next 20 years will soar is well-taken, certainly. Canadians older than 65 will number 9.3 million 20 years from now, a huge jump from 4.7 million today.

Selling this to older Canadians, however, may not be as politically easy as he thinks. Those of us who are not too far away from needing OAS may remember that the former Conservative government of Brian Mulroney tried the same thing.

During the recession of the early 1980s, Mulroney proposed cutting back OAS and family allowances. His timing, of course, coming during a recession, was spectacularly bad. The policy was vigorously slammed by labour, anti-poverty and seniors groups, and caused enough backlash to force Mulroney to back down. That attempt got more publicity, but a Liberal government tried it, too.

Whether Canada is heading for a double dip recession remains to be seen, and Harper is presently more popular than was Mulroney.

Still, the impression that this government is planning to balance future books on the backs of seniors may not go over well.

In addition, there’s that thing about delivering policy decisions from afar. I don’t know if there’s a good way to tell aging Canadians that some of their expected retirement funds will be unavailable, but outlining the policy in someone else’s country is not the best approach. Call me crazy, but how about putting it in an election campaign, or even a throne speech?

This approach is tantamount to breaking up with someone by e-mail.

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