Give and take: Meeting Paul Martin

In an age of faxes and e-mail, the best form of communication may still be face-to-face. This was apparent in a recent meeting in CARP’s national offices in Toronto, when CARP President Lillian Morgenthau hosted Finance Minister Paul Martin and several senior officials from his department.

Acknowledging the concern of CARP members over a variety of changes, Mr. Martin insisted his government wanted to make things better, not worse. "It’s time to do things for seniors, not to seniors," he said.

A slide presentation by Assistant Deputy Minister of Finance Don Drummond described the current retirement income system and outlined proposed reforms regarding the Canada Pension Plan and the Seniors Benefit. A willingness to listen, apparent around the table as the discussion that followed progressed, seemed to herald a new relationship between the most powerful ministry in Ottawa and CARP, Canada’s largest organization for the 50-plus.

Reading a letter from a CARP member, Mrs. Morgenthau pointed out the need for remembering the human element when making these reforms. "We have to make our members feel more secure," she said. "They’re thrilled the decit has come down — but they want to know they’ll have some security in the future."

"It’s crucial to put in place a system that people will have confidence in," Mr. Martin said. "The next set of changes must be better, not worse. I think we’re getting the system to that point." CARP has consistently called for open consultation on the proposed Seniors Benefit. Mr. Martin confirmed that hearings would, in fact, take place following the introduction of the legislation in the House, perhaps later this year or in the spring. "Significant amendments have been made under those circumstances," David Walker, Mr. Martin’s special advisor on pensions, pointed out.

Although Mrs. Morgenthau pushed him to change the transition for the Seniors Benefit from five to 15 years, Mr. Martin was unmoved. "There is not an inexhaustible supply of money… you can’t look at any single government program in isolation. You’ve got to look at government revenues and expenditures…we’ve got to concentrate our scarce resources on those who need it most."

Responding to questions from William Gleberzon, Associate Executive Director of CARP, the team from Ottawa agreed to consider extending the deadline for converting RRSPs from Dec. 31 to the end of February, 1998. CARPNews Publisher and Editor David Tafler asked Mr. Martin for some assurance the RRSP age limit would not be reduced further from the current level of 69.

The Minister refused to commit future governments, but for the first time declared he had no plans to lower the age of conversion.

Responding to a query from Mr. Gleberzon concerning government support for family or volunteer caregivers who care for elderly parents or friends, Mr. Martin pointed out that his party had promised such support in its Red Book II. "Ten or 15 years ago," he said, "no one was talking about this. But the government is committed to it and we will follow through." However, structuring a program similar to that available for those caring for children would require a change in CPP, he said, a circumstance too difficult to change as the CPP is locked in with the provinces.

An area Mr. Martin also indicated was unlikely to change for some time is the Canada-U.S. Tax Treaty. Recognizing it is not the best situation, he noted that it is making its way through U.S. Congress and progress would be halted if additional changes were introduced. Mr. Gleberzon’s call for a minister responsible for seniors was heard — but Mr. Martin noted that setting up such a ministry would take a long time and would probably not be effective. He argued that it made better sense to leave such issues with specific ministries. Along with the Ministry of Health, he noted, "We’re becoming the ministry of seniors." Mr. Martin agreed with a proposal to meet annually with CARP representatives, and invited CARP to provide input on the upcoming federal budget.

He also arranged for his officials to meet with a CARP team to consult and agree on basic facts and numbers. "There are going to be differences based on principles and approach," he noted, "but we should both agree on facts."

Mr. Martin explained that the government’s proposed changes have nothing to do with the deficit. "It’s not about saving money," he said. "Are we going to have a proper system in place and will it work for the long term?"

And national unity is bound up in the entire issue, he said. "It’s important for people in Quebec and the rest of the country to work together closely and have confidence in where the country is going.

"Canada will become a better place to retire, not worse," he insisted.

And Mrs. Morgenthau replied, "Talk is cheap. We’ll be watching."