National Column: What Singh is really saying about Old Age Security

by Thomas Walkom

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-year-old 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 liberal-left 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 nation-defining 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.”

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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