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Hansard transcipt of pension discussion in Legislature Dec. 3 2013

Pensions

Mr. Melanson: If there is one promise that this government has broken over and over, it is to be open and transparent and to include people in decision making. When it comes to pension reform, this government has not included people who would be and people who are going to be affected by it.

This government and this minister have offered, should the official opposition retain the services of an actuary, to have the staff of the minister’s department sit down with the actuary and provide the actuary with all the information that would need to be analyzed by that actuary, who was chosen by us.

I have sent a letter to the minister, and I am asking him today whether he will honour his offer and accept my letter that is before him.

Hon. Mr. Higgs: Yes, we did talk about this last week and we did receive the letter late last week and I do have a response here. However, I would like to make a few comments that I think are relevant in relation to the actuary, or the person who was chosen.

Last week, we made it very clear that this work that would be undertaken or this offer for an actuary to review the numbers would require the person be just that—an actuary. An actuary is described under the New Brunswick Regulation under the Pension Benefits Act as “a fellow of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries”. Unfortunately, the individual the opposition has asked to look at these records cannot be found anywhere in the public accounts and in the public members’ directory.

I would just ask that, based on that requirement, the individual who is being proposed can submit that information to us so that we do know that he is a credited actuary, and then we can proceed. It is very important that this individual be independent in the process because the process has to be one of an independent . . .

Mr. Melanson: CUPE, we understand, has also offered a letter to you regarding services from an actuary so that you would be able to provide some information to CUPE. Would you honour that letter and that request?

Hon. Mr. Higgs: I am not familiar with CUPE’s position on that. I know that CUPE has spoken to the same individual who has been asked in terms of the members opposite. However, I would suggest someone you might consider talking to, who has already reviewed the records, and that would be Robert Blais. As you know, he was the independent actuary who was appointed by the coalition to look at all the information and provide information back to the coalition.

Again, I do want to reiterate that the individual being proposed needs to be an accredited actuary. This is sensitive information that will be supplied and reviewed. It has to be done on a confidential basis, which is very, very important. I made that clear last week, so that is not new

news. Also, this person should be independent. This person, who has been reported in the papers as being very critical of our pension reform, I would say, is not exactly coming with an independent and open mind, which is also a key part of this. Also, this person cannot be an employee who is looking for a problem to be found.

Mr. Melanson: The actuary we offered was Mr. Dussault, who was the senior actuary of the federal pension plan. He has the qualifications. He is offering his services to us so that we will be able to analyze all the information you have refused to give.

You refer to an actuary, Mr. Blais. He had to sign a confidentiality agreement, so he could not disclose all the information.

Will you honour the offer that you made to us and supply the information to Mr. Dussault?

Hon. Mr. Higgs: At the risk of repeating myself for the third time, I would say that the issue here is in relation to the accreditation of Mr. Dussault. Mr. Dussault is listed on the Web site of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, where he appears to be employed as a pensions and benefits officer. He is not listed as an actuary. In addition, he is not listed or accredited by the Canadian Institute of Actuaries.

My point is that this has to be an accredited individual, an accredited actuary with whom we can share this information. It is a pretty clear requirement. There is no confusion here. It is a requirement.

Mr. Melanson: I know that the Minister of Finance is trying to discredit many individuals who want to be part of the solution. I know that this Minister of Finance has his mind made up. He wants to impose a solution—one recipe for addressing the challenges to our pension system in New Brunswick.

We are the only province with a minister who wants to do this using the shared-risk model. Why not provide all the information to the people who have an interest, who have the expertise, who have the knowledge, and who can do the analysis and make up their own minds on whether the shared-risk model is the right recipe to address the challenges?

Hon. Mr. Higgs: A lot of information has been shared. A lot of information has been provided. A lot of studies have been done on this plan. This plan is being evaluated across this country. It is being looked at by authorities across the country, who are saying that it could be a solution to the pension woes that exist across Canada and in North America.

What we are trying to do is to save the pension plan. We are trying to make it sustainable and affordable for pensioners, employees, and future employees. That seems to be the missing link.

Our province needs reform in many areas, and this is one key area. We are not alone in that. People across the country are looking at this. The task force that was put together by the Premier looked in great detail at what would make sense for this province. It is interesting how many

people have said that this could save our pension plan. However, there are a few who refuse to change, and I am looking at a few of them right there.

Mr. Melanson: The minister is saying that he wants to save the pension plan. Well, Alberta wants to save its pension plan. Ontario wants to save its pension plan. Nova Scotia wants to save its pension plan. Prince Edward Island wants to save its pension plan. They are not using the shared-risk model that you are suggesting, proposing, and imposing.

You have said that many analyses have been done. Why can you not provide the information?

You are asking us, as legislators, and asking people who are affected by this change to accept the change that you are imposing on us. You are not providing every single bit of information for people to be able to digest it, understand it, analyze it, and make sure that, if this is the right thing for them, they understand it. If it is not the right thing for them, they can find other options.

You have constantly refused to provide that information. Please provide that information on behalf of New Brunswickers.

Hon. Mr. Higgs: I am not sure what the member thinks as to why we paid for the services of Robert Blais. I am not sure what his mechanism is when he says that we have not done that. Also, when we look at all the other negotiations that were under way with the union officials, all of that was done over the last two years, with reams of information, reams of tests, and reams of actual risk analysis done on every scenario. That is why we can say that we have a pension plan that is designed to and will achieve a 75% return on the cost of living—75%. Do you want to talk about Alberta? Its plan has gone to 50%. Do you want to talk about Prince Edward Island? What discussions did it have? It made an announcement in the Legislature. In Nova Scotia, it was no different. We have been at this for two and a half or three years. This did not just come in front of the Legislature. If you want to talk about asking questions, how many questions did you ask last week? You did not ask any questions. You just talked and talked and talked. You are just now getting to questions.

Mr. Melanson: We have asked more questions than the number of answers we have received from this government.

Mr. Melanson: Do you know what? We would stop asking questions if the government would give us the answers. If it would provide the information that is being asked for, so that people could make up their own minds and digest what the government has used to analyze and to come up with this shared-risk model, people might want to move on.

However, the fact of the matter is that the government has something to hide. The minister said that he has been working on this for two and a half years. Why can he, the government, and the Premier of this province not provide the information? They promised it during the campaign. They said that they would be very open, very transparent and inclusive, and that they would have meaningful conversation and consultation. What happened on this file? Did they miss reading

that paragraph in their platform?

Hon. Mr. Higgs: If we want to talk about platforms and commitments . . . The Premier was very clear in our commitment that we would look at pension reform. It was not an idle statement. It was reality. We have a problem, and Canada has a problem; but we are dealing with it in New Brunswick, and we are dealing with it in an effective way. I t is not just our word. Look at Jim Leech. Look at his new book about the pension situation. He is the chairman of the board of trustees for the teachers’ plan in Ontario, and he is saying that we have pension reform, that we have a model here that shares the responsibility among the retirees, the current employees, the future employees, and the taxpayers of this province.

We have provided this information. If you want to provide the credentials of Mr. Dussault, we will go the next step there. We want an objective viewpoint on this. We do not just want to look for trouble. Look for solutions. That is what this province needs—solutions, not just more trouble.

Mr. Melanson: They will find every excuse in the book not to provide this information. They will justify what they have done and what they have not done in providing information. Every excuse they can find, they will provide it. There are retirees to whom previous governments offered early retirement programs in order to save dollars for government and to be more efficient. When we read Bill 11, we do not see how the early retirement programs will be protected. We understand that the pension benefits are paid by either the pension fund or the Consolidated Fund. It says in the bill that the Board of Management will make decisions about the future of early retirement programs. Can the minister explain to us here today . . . These individuals are listening carefully. It is their future income that may be at risk. How can you give us the information today and promise and guarantee that this will be protected further?

Hon. Mr. Higgs: It is encouraging. Finally, a real question. Yes, those plans are protected. We have protected the base benefits of retirees at conversion, which we said would be protected in legislation, and that is protected in this legislation. We said that we would protect that supplemental income based on early retirement packages, and, yes, it is in the legislation.

It is clearly lined out, and we have an area there that we are looking at to be sure that it follows the SRPP model. We are going to propose an amendment for that so that it is very clear because we had a question: Is that clear enough? Well, we will make it clear enough. The intent is absolutely that it will be protected and that it will follow the SRPP model in terms of the future cost-of-living indexing based on that SRPP model. Thanks for the question.

M. Melanson : Avec l’approche de ce gouvernement, qui négocie les différents régimes de pension sur une base individuelle, il est difficile de savoir si, en utilisant le modèle à risques partagés, les gens seront traités de façon équitable par rapport à leur régime respectif. Nous voyons que le personnel enseignant et son régime de pension sont inclus dans le projet de loi 11. Le ministre peut-il nous expliquer aujourd’hui les discussions qu’il a eues avec le

personnel enseignant du Nouveau-Brunswick? Quel type de négociations a-t-il eu avec le personnel enseignant? À quel moment ce régime de pension sera-t-il converti — car, c’est prévu dans le projet de loi — au modèle à risques partagés?

Hon. Mr. Higgs: There you go. Bill 11 is not about the teachers. Bill 11 is about the PSSA. We have not had any significant discussions with the teachers. We are sharing information with them, mind you. They have an actuary, who happens to be Robert Blais. They have taken the same actuary that the coalition had. He is looking at the teachers’ information. They are looking at it all now. That is yet to come, and we will have very good, open discussions on how the SRPP will adapt to the teachers’ plan and what opportunities exists. However, every plan is negotiated and reviewed in its own right. We said that from the very beginning. When the hospital workers signed on to this plan a year ago or more, they were in a unique situation. They had a pension plan that was in serious financial trouble. The only difference between that one and the one we are talking about today is that the government has been funding this pension plan for 20 years—overfunding it.

Mr. Melanson: The fact of the matter is that, in Bill 11, sections 46 and 47, the teachers are included, which means that, when you want to convert to a shared-risk pension, you do not have to come back to the floor of the Legislature and change the legislation—it is included.

The Minister of Finance said that over $600 million was paid in special payments, but his government has spent over $600 million in six months trying to win votes, because it is an election year.

Mr. Melanson: The question is this: When are you planning to convert the Teachers’ Pension Fund to the shared-risk model? It is in Bill 11. New Brunswickers want to know, and the teachers want to know.

Hon. Mr. Higgs: As I have said, Bill 11 is all about the PSSA. It does not affect the teachers’ program at all.

We are working with the teachers, as we have said. We are sharing information at this point, as we have said. We will be having meetings with them over the coming weeks. Depending on how that goes . . . We are hopeful that we will come to a solution because, guess what? I think the teachers realize that we have a pension situation in this province, I think they realize that we have an opportunity that must be addressed, and I think they want to be part of the solution. I am sure that most of the coalition members realize that we have a problem, and they, too, want to be part of the solution. The only problem we have is that there is a certain group that wants to grandstand and make an issue out of a solution. We are focused on a solution, and we would like to have some cooperation to get there.