When I arrived in Ottawa in the mid-1980s as an eager but callow young journalist, I was under the impression that every important issue got attention because of an intrepid press corps and that everything that happened was because of Machiavellian strategy by politicians.
After a couple of years of being part of a media pack chasing stories like greyhounds chase a mechanical rabbit at the races, I realized that neither the media nor the Machiavellians are what they are cracked up to be. Most things happen in Ottawa by accident – or through just simple serendipity.
Students of government and the media should be paying close attention to what’s going on in the capital these days.
Take Bill C-27. Heard of it? Probably not.
Although the media and the official Opposition have been obsessed with the ability of small-business owners, farmers, doctors and dentists to save for their future retirement through private professional corporations, Bill C-27 has been wafting quietly through Parliament toward its goal of throwing the retirement system into chaos. Introduced in the House of Commons in October 2016 by Finance Minister Bill Morneau – without consultation with those affected – this bill seeks to introduce a target benefit pension plan framework in Canada’s federal pension system.
Known as “shared risk” pensions, target benefit plans shift market risk to employees from employers. In tough times, target benefit pensions can be reduced. Or, in the event of mismanagement, pension plan members could be left holding the bag through no fault of their own.
Bill C-27 would affect only the accrued pensions of those employed by Crown corporations and employers that fall under the federal labour code. But what goes on in the federal system tends to set a pattern nationally.
In fact, this is already happening. The province of New Brunswick introduced a shared risk pension for its employees in 2015 and companies increasingly are demanding that defined-benefit (DB) pension plans be replaced with the shared risk option.
Of course, Morneau knows a thing or two about pensions, having inherited the firm of Morneau Sheppell Ltd. from his father. Morneau Sheppell will probably make a bundle helping employers get rid of DB pension plans in future years.
That the media have not noticed Bill C-27 shouldn’t be a surprise. Journalists rarely set the agenda of public discussion – with some notable exceptions, such as Robert Fife of the Globe and Mail.
What is surprising is the muted response of the other parties. That’s especially true of the New Democratic Party (NDP), which is supposed to be looking out for ordinary Canadians. Members of all the parties were, after all, in the House of Commons last December, when Morneau tabled Bill C-27. But for some reason, both Opposition parties are ignoring a potentially hot issue.
Jagmeet Singh is going to have to be the messiah he is cracked up to be as new NDP leader to get that party out of its funk.
As for Morneau, he is exposed to a career-limiting risk if C-27 does eventually become an issue. In a town in which optics are everything, he will look sloppy – as he did with the proposed small-business tax changes. That would be two strikes.
At the same time, the Conservatives are busy trying to concoct a phony issue about the family trusts of Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and scaring the hell out of small-business owners across the country. Despite all the fuss about small-business tax changes, how many business owners would be affected at all is far from clear.
The Liberals argue the changes will not affect anyone making $150,000 a year or less, and many economists agree. So far, the opposing side in this debate has yet to quantify or even provide much detail amid all the anger.
So, there is a juicy irony here. The Liberals released the small-business tax changes in the middle of summer as quietly as they could, in the hope there would be little attention raised. We know how that worked out. Yet, they began dismantling DB pension plans for federal employees in plain sight and nobody noticed.
Funny how Ottawa works.
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