Conservative minority sends mixed message to seniors

The Canadian political scene is poised for another dose of minority government but this time with the Conservatives at the helm. Twelve years of Liberal governance came to an end last night as Stephen Harper and the Conservatives were given a qualified mandate to govern. With the political instability come new questions about the priority seniors issues will receive in the legislative agenda. “It is too soon to tell what specific initiatives for seniors will be taken by the new government,” says CARP’s Director of Government & Media Relations Judy Cutler. “However, we did have some productive conversations with Mr. Harper and his shadow cabinet last year.”CARP – as a non-partisan organization – is ready to work with any government regardless of its political stripe. [W]e work with the government of the day to enhance policies for seniors’ well being. Therefore health care, pensions, environment and housing will all be on our agenda — and optimistically theirs,” says Cutler. “As for minority governments, our experience is that when there is the will, there is usually the way. With the oppositions’ input being important, hopefully parliament as a whe will serve the aging population with practical policies.” Prime Minister Paul Martin said he would not fight another election and will be stepping down as Liberal leader. As with any change in government, there are questions about the status of existing initiatives that affect seniors. [T]here were some important programs being introduced by Tony Ianno before the election and it is unclear at this point about their future — e.g. support for family caregivers. Hopefully the Seniors Secretariat now in place will continue and in that way and keep seniors issues high on the government agenda,” says Cutler. Tony Ianno, Minister of State for Families and Caregivers, lost to NDP candidate Olivia Chow in a tightly-fought battle in the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina. The scattered plucking of ridings from the east coast gained momentum at the Quebec border as the party that had been shut out of that province picked up 10 seats. The current of blue picked up steam in Ontario and turned into a flood as results came in from Alberta and central and eastern British Columbia. While recounts are expected in a few tight races, the unofficial results had the Conservatives with 124 seats, the Liberals with 103, the NDP with 29 and the Bloc with 51. There was also one independent member elected. The Conservatives received 36 percent of the popular vote, the Liberals 30 percent, the NDP 17 percent and the Bloc 10 per cent. At dissolution of Parliament the Liberals held 133 seats, the Conservatives 98 and the Bloc Quebecois 53 and the NDP 18. Despite the Conservatives coming in with the greater number of seats, Parliament remains fractured. They are 31 seats short of a majority and will therefore require the support of at least one other party to put their agenda into legislation. During the campaign, the Conservatives made several policy pronouncements affecting seniors. One was a guarantee to reduce wait times for critical surgery and specialist services. When the announcement was made on December 2, Stephen Harper said that since the Liberals took power, the time that patients wait to be seen by a specialist has almost doubled ― from 9.3 weeks to 17.7 weeks. Harper said that a Conservative government would work with the provinces to develop a Patient Wait Times Guarantee to ensure that all Canadians receive essential medical treatment within clinically acceptable waiting times.One week later the Conservatives announced their commitment to Canada’s current public pension system, including Old Age Security, Guaranteed Income Supplement, and Canada Pension Plan. The Conservatives promised to double the seniors pension deduction to $2000 and eventually increasing it to $2500 per year. “We will protect our public pension programs, and build on them by allowing seniors to keep more of their pension income tax free,” said Mr. Harper. “Seniors who sacrificed to save for their retirement and paid into pension plans should get a tax break.”At the December 9 announcement, it was stated that this tax break for the seniors’ pension income amount would put approximately $2.235 billion dollars into the hands of seniors over the next five years.The Conservatives also promised to appoint a Seniors Council, comprised of seniors and representatives of seniors’ organizations, to advise the minister responsible for seniors on issues of national importance. In advance of the election, CARP’s advocacy team headed by Judy Cutler and Bill Gleberzon met with then opposition leader Stephen Harper and other members of his team. Mr. Harper assured CARP that seniors will be a major focus for his party in the next election and if it formed the government. At the same time, while CARP has always advocated for a distinct ministry for seniors, Mr. Harper has opposed such a position. Mr. Harper prefers an adjunct arrangement with a parliamentary assistant responsible for seniors working with a seniors secretariat.At the meeting Harper also stated that the federal-provincial Health Accord should include measures to assess results and provide stronger provisions for transparency.CARP is tracking events closely and will be watching to see the composition of the new cabinet and policy directives on seniors’ issues.[We] will work with the Secretariat and promised Council to make our voice loud and clear. How we all work together is obviously not yet known, but CARP is known to them already and this should be sign of collaboration,” says Cutler.