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It is not just former senior public employees resisting public pension reform.

(Commentary)

Your newspaper began a Saturday editorial by taking a swing at retired senior public servants.  It implies that resistance to proposed reforms is coming only from this small group. The editorial questions how they can be so blind to the need for fiscal reforms of this kind. Since the TJ has not had the opportunity to learn just who is behind the effort to change the trajectory of public pension reforms and their motivations, we would like to explain.

We continue to be struck by the blindness of those who comment critically about these pension matters as to the nature of pension obligations. Pension plan members are creditors of the province who have exchanged their work for compensation, which includes the deferred pension benefits. No other creditor to date is being asked to take a haircut like pensioners are.

The province is not asking Irving Oil to reduce its bill, nor bondholders to accept less interest. People have every right to ask why us? It is implicit in the TJ editorial and in the actions of government, public servants don’t deserve these benefits because their work and contributions are not valued. Not the best way to induce people to be flexible toward changes to their pensions.

For every senior public servant, there are hundreds of plan members and surviving spouses who are living on very modest pensions. They depend on the cost of living increases to pay their bills, which grow unabated. Appearing to put even a portion of that income at risk raises justifiable fear and uncertainty. We understand and applaud their restraint to date and their honest search for a more certain future.

Senior public servants may be an especially convenient straw target for critics. You imply they are the only group resistant to pension reforms. Opposition to the design of the government’s new pension scheme are coming from the grass roots and from every community across this province.  This push back is coming from tens of thousands of members who work now or previously worked at every level. It includes current and former workers who toiled on the frontlines and at every level right up to the deputy minister level. A significant number of these people are working tirelessly out of concern for their retirement livelihoods. Whether it is the quiet but firm support from existing employees or the much louder support of retired members, there is a very large and very representative involvement of the membership. 

We have personally talked to a great many plan members and we have heard a number of clear messages.  

One is that they understand very well that there is a severe and growing fiscal problem. They hear and see it every day. They see how their friends, family and neighbors are being affected. They know how some communities are struggling to survive and that the very economic fabric of our province is unravelling. The need for everyone to put their shoulder to the wheel is accepted.

Another is that they realize they may have to accept some change to their pension benefits. Exactly how much, and when and how it will happen are big unknowns. They are not prepared to accept changes until the need for them is crystal clear.   They know that if changes are absolutely necessary due to unsustainability of current pension promises, that there are other alternatives to deal with it, especially within the framework of the current legislation. They do not accept that the government’s answer, which is to cut them adrift by converting to a Shared Risk Scheme, is the only feasible or best solution.

Thirdly, they believe that government has done a poor job of preparing the ground for such change and an equally poor job of communicating it in an open and transparent way. They are bound to believe there is more of a negative impact than the government’s soothing words suggest. Trust, unfortunately, is at an all-time low.  When trust is so low, it is inevitable that people will dig in their heels.

Where the TJ editorial also comes up short, is in its understanding of the role that senior retired public servants play in this picture. They are not involved for personal gain. They were leaders of people when they worked and they are fulfilling the role of volunteer leaders on this issue. We are humbled to be asked by the rank and file membership to lead. We take that responsibility as seriously as we would if we were employed. If there is going to be a resolution that will allow us all to get on with much more pressing provincial challenges, we believe we  can help find it. If a compromise is not found, government will be left with the undesirable option of using their legislative ‘super powers’ to force their changes through.

Such unilateral action will force pensioners into legal action to prevent the conversion of the PSSA to the Shared Risk Scheme. Neither side should want this to happen.

We believe some in government believe this too. They are no doubt exasperated with the machinations and delays. That is understandable. However, they need only look in the mirror to find the cause. Putting that animosity behind us is essential for a resolution. Government has become more open with information recently and through Minister Higgs has offered an honest olive branch. Progress, however slowly, is being made. We urge patience on all sides.

The organized resistance to the pension changes has morphed into an honest effort to find a way to reform that is closer to a win-win for both sides. If government is prepared to be flexible, we have faith that plan members will be as well. We seek to lead the way out of this impasse for the benefit of plan members while at the same time doing our small part in helping with our fiscal challenge.

Your newspaper would better contribute to the resolution of this particular issue by supporting this approach than by trying to make a group of senior retired public servants the bad guys. Your newspaper’s attitude is not productive when you characterize one group as righteous and the other as villains. All the tough issues and challenges this province faces requires everyone to be involved in a collaborative way.

Submitted by: Ernest Mackinnon, Bonny Hoyt-Hallett, Brian Durelle and Cyril Theriault – Pension Coalition

Contact: Ernest Mackinnon,  506-472-0231.   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.