What Singh is re­ally say­ing about Old Age Se­cu­rity

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Thomas Walkom Thomas Walkom is a na­tional af­fairs colum­nist for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices.

New Demo­cratic Party fed­eral lead­er­ship can­di­date Jag­meet Singh is un­ortho­dox in more ways than one.

So far, the new­est en­trant in the four-per­son race to re­place Tom Mul­cair has been deemed note­wor­thy for his style (natty) and his re­li­gion (Sikh).

His sup­port­ers - and Singh him­self - ar­gue that the 38-yearold Bramp­ton politi­cian is best po­si­tioned to per­suade younger vot­ers, as well as those from the eth­ni­cally di­verse rid­ings of sub­ur­ban Canada, to vote NDP.

But Singh has also shown on an un­usual will­ing­ness to take on es­tab­lished party pol­icy. In par­tic­u­lar, he is break­ing with the NDP’s long-held sup­port for uni­ver­sal Old Age Se­cu­rity (OAS).

His Canada Se­niors Guar­an­tee would scrap OAS and roll it, along with three other pro­grams aimed at those 65 and over, into one means-tested ben­e­fit for the el­derly poor.

It’s a bold move that bears an un­canny re­sem­blance to an idea floated - but never acted on - by Jean Chre­tien’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment in 1996.

Given the NDP’s affin­ity for uni­ver­sal so­cial pro­grams it may also be fool­hardy.

The NDP Pol­icy Book, a kind of Bi­ble for the party, states ex­plic­itly that “New Democrats be­lieve in main­tain­ing the uni­ver­sal­ity of Old Age Se­cu­rity.”

Singh ar­gues, as he did ear­lier this month dur­ing a Saska­toon lead­er­ship de­bate, that OAS is not uni­ver­sal now. And tech­ni­cally, he is cor­rect.

Un­der rules put in place in 1989 by Brian Mul­roney’s Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment, ev­ery el­i­gi­ble se­nior re­ceives OAS cur­rently up to $583.74 a month. But the wealth­i­est must pay all or some of it back to the fed­eral trea­sury.

Cur­rently, this so-called claw­back be­gins when a se­nior’s an­nual in­come ex­ceeds $74,788. Those who earn $121,279 or more face hav­ing all of their OAS clawed back.

But only a very small per­cent­age of se­niors earn such high in­comes. The Cale­don In­sti­tute cal­cu­lated that in 2012 just 6 per cent of se­niors were af­fected by the claw­back. Only 2.3 per cent had to re­pay the en­tire amount.

The dis­pute over uni­ver­sal so­cial pro­grams has a long his­tory. On the one side are those, in­clud­ing many on the lib­er­alleft as well as the hard right, who ar­gue that so­cial pro­grams should be tar­geted to the truly needy.

“It’s of­fen­sive to me that mil­lion­aires or peo­ple who are earn­ing over $100,000 are re­ceiv­ing pay­ments while peo­ple are liv­ing in poverty right now,” Singh said in Saska­toon.

That’s not much dif­fer­ent from the ar­gu­ment Con­ser­va­tive Mul­roney made in the ‘80s when he com­plained about uni­ver­sal so­cial pro­grams that ben­e­fit­ted the apoc­ryphal wealthy bank pres­i­dent.

“Are we mak­ing proper use of tax­pay­ers’ money by giv­ing a bank pres­i­dent who makes $500,000 or $600,000 a year a baby bonus?” he asked rhetor­i­cally in 1984. “Could that money not be more prop­erly used to as­sist some­one who des­per­ately needs help?”

Nor does it dif­fer much from Lib­eral Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s ra­tio­nale for do­ing away with the Con­ser­va­tives’ uni­ver­sal child care ben­e­fit. Fam­i­lies like his, said mil­lion­aire Trudeau, sim­ply don’t need the money.

On the other side are those who ar­gue that so­cial pro­grams must ben­e­fit a broad swath of the mid­dle class, as well as the very poor, if they are to have po­lit­i­cal le­git­i­macy. For­mer NDP leader Ed Broad­bent used to make this case elo­quently when de­fend­ing uni­ver­sal pro­grams, such as OAS and the baby bonus.

The eas­i­est way to erode so­cial pro­grams, he would say then, was to limit them to peo­ple like the very poor that most vot­ers don’t care about.

Even medi­care could be means tested - as is the U.S. health care pro­gram for the poor known as Med­i­caid. But if so, it would no longer be the pop­u­lar na­tion­defin­ing sym­bol that it is in Canada.

Un­til now, it seemed that most New Democrats agreed with this anal­y­sis. Some still do.

“You, my friend, you make it seem as if this is a great pro­gres­sive idea,” fel­low lead­er­ship con­tender Char­lie An­gus told Singh dur­ing the Saska­toon de­bate. “Well where I come from that’s not pro­gres­sive.

“Se­niors fought for that and se­niors should have that pro­tected.”

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