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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - John Capobianco, Marit Stiles and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

A long-standing member and co-founder of the Conservative Party of Canada has decided to call it a day and announced he will not be seeking re-election in the federal election slated for October of this year. Peter MacKay, who was leader of the Progressive Conservative Party until he cut a deal with then-leader of the Canadian Alliance, Stephen Harper, is leaving the merged party he helped create.

John Capobianco:

Peter has served his constituents, his party, and this country extremely well over the many years as an MP.

As with any politician who steps down in their prime or when they are at the top of their game, questions and discussions occur about the real reason they have resigned. For the record, Peter did state that he wanted to spend more time with his young family — soon to be bigger and younger! However, that doesn't stop some from thinking the real reason was money — well, pension funds to be precise.

With the new rules in place — Bill C-46, an Act to amend the MP's Retiring Allowance, which became law in November of 2012 — all politicians elected after the next election must wait until the age of 65, instead of the current 55, to collect their pension. This 10 year gap has significant meaning to those politicians who, like Peter, have been in the House for many years — to the tune of $1.3 million, some estimates show.

That is a big deal and something many have and will likely look at when making up their minds to run again or to run at all.

Richard Mahoney:

As John says, Peter MacKay is literally a co-founder of the current Conservative Party. His resignation brings to 30 the number of Conservative MPs who are not running again. Moreover, it brings into focus another issue for Stephen Harper — the talent pool is getting thinner and thinner.

MacKay was the last, best representative of the old Progressive Conservatives in the one-man band that is the Harper government. I am sure it was tough for MacKay to leave the world of politics that he knows and loves but the combination of taking out Mr. Harper's garbage every other week, together with the fact that this decision means $1.3 million dollars in found pension money in his pocket, must have convinced him it was time to go, at least for now.

It also points to the fact that these latest changes to pensions are problematic. The public thinks all politicians get maximum pensions when they retire. That is not the case and this change has created an incentive to cash in your chips, as John Baird and so many others have done.

Marit Stiles:

Well, as Richard points out, with 30 Conservative MPs deciding not to run again, including many of Mr. Harper's front bench, Mr. MacKay's announcement carries a lot more weight that it might have. The fact is the Conservatives are running out of steam and deciding to jump ship before the next election — and this pension issue can’t have hurt that decision to back out instead of face the music.

I'm not doubting that Mr. MacKay has many reasons for deciding not to run for re-election, and certainly the politician's life presents challenges to parents of young children. (Just ask all those young NDP MPs who had to juggle infants and Question period! But they managed and changed the way the House of Commons deals with those family matters.)

But I find the timing and the conversation that's ensuing — about MP pensions — interesting in light of the broader debate taking place around the Canadian Pension Plan.

Let's contrast, for example, what Conservative MPs will get if they resign now (i.e. a higher pension with lower contributions and accessible at 55, not 65) vs. what the majority of Canadians receive when they retire… if they can ever really retire. The Conservatives have taken an axe to everyday Canadians’ pensions.

Instead of helping Canadians as they fall behind, the Conservatives have made matters worse by raising the age of eligibility for Old Age Security, which will take more than $13,000 out of the pockets of every Canadian senior and double poverty amongst people aged 65 and 66. All these last ditch, deathbed promises that are emerging now smack of the same old promises we've heard before. More empty promises, while seven in ten workers don’t have a company pension plan and less than a quarter of Canadians have money to put in their RRSP each year.

John Capobianco:

I would have been surprised if my opposing friends on this panel didn't try to tie Peter's departure with some dark, conspiracy theorist angle about the PM. Truth be told, they would have complained if there weren’t any changes to the government front benches anyway. Canadians will judge this government come election time based on the successes of the leader first and foremost—and the leader has done well.

But that aside, this is a serious issue for those in elected positions, not only in Ottawa, but in Ontario and any legislature. I would venture to say that the vast majority of those who decide to enter elected office don't do it for the money — in many cases they usually take a pay cut to enter public service.

The one thing that they do rely on in most cases is the pension, so that when and if they leave voluntarily or not, and only after six years, they have something they can rely on since getting work doesn't come easily for defeated politicians.

The debate about raising politicians' salaries to attract and retain quality representatives is one that will never end and is flawed. It will never happen — many have gone to outside sources to come up with good ideas only to be shot down by the politicians themselves.

This amendment, which may or may not have caused some to leave office, was the right thing to do and, according to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, has brought pensions more in line with other plans.

Richard Mahoney:

The issue of politician's pensions presents a real problem. I made the point above that the talent pool is pretty thin these days. As important as MacKay is to the Conservative Party, he wasn't much of a Minister, as Andrew Coyne reminds us:

The reality is that a young woman who might consider running right now and offering herself for public service will have to confront this: the public thinks MPs have gilded life- long pensions, but that young woman will have to serve 25 years in Parliament (which almost never happens) before she will get a full pension. She will also have to wait until she is 65 before she can collect. It is hardly the sweet deal everyone thinks she will get. She will give up her current job to run. If she is lucky enough to win (a crap shoot), she will need to be elected to a second term before she even starts to become eligible.

She is more likely, as these things go, to get 18-20 per cent of her salary, and again not until she is 65. Unless she is independently wealthy, it is a pretty big career risk, with no security, and the only way to get a full pension is to get re-elected six times. There are only a handful of people this will ever apply to. This is no incentive, that’s for sure.

Marit Stiles:

I couldn't agree with you more, Richard (how often does that happen?). There's little if any monetary incentive to run for federal office anymore. Mr. MacKay and others who are jumping ship prior to this election, however, have had a pretty decent run of it and will be able to collect their pensions at 55, etc.

Having said that, there are still many people willing to throw their hats in the ring to run for public office, and — let there be no doubt — the only incentive to run is to perform public service, to make Canada a better place, to have an impact on public policy and serve one's community.

Is the talent pool for MPs going to dwindle as a result? Well, I don't disagree that our MPs, MPPs, etc., should be properly compensated for the jobs they do. But I also think we may actually see a more interesting and representative pool of candidates for office. We may see fewer lawyers in those ranks or former CEOs, but maybe a few more artists, and some teachers and nurses might still be running.

In any case, whatever happens, we need to re-think what it is we value as a society and if a reduced pension at 65 instead of 55 isn't going to cut it for the likes of Peter Mackay or John Baird, why should Canadians be forced to accept the cuts they've experienced?

We need to boost standard CPP and QPP benefits and ensure every Canadian has access to a secure, portable workplace pension. Vague, last minute promises to look at expanding voluntary contributions won’t put a dent in the overall problem unless standard CPP benefits are strengthened as well.

About The Salon

Richard Mahoney is a former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin; Marit Stiles is a federal and Ontario NDP strategist; and John Capobianco is a former CPC candidate and long-time party activist in both the federal and Ontario Conservative parties
Posted date : June 03, 2015

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