Hon. Flora MacDonald (Kingston and the Islands) moved:
That this House profoundly regrets the two-year delay of the Government in bringing in promised legislation to improve guaranteed income supplements for low-income single elderly Canadians, and condemns the Government for its failure to respond to the innovative proposals of the all-party Parliamentary Task Force on Pension Reform to expand opportunities for Canadians under age 65 to make adequate provision for income in their retirement years.
She said: Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased that the Opposition is able to raise this question of pension reform once again for debate in this House of Commons. We do so in the hope and expectation that somehow it will move the Government forward, if only slightly, to the very real changes which are needed in the pension system in Canada; to make sure that those who are now in greatest need will have their wants addressed; and that there will be changes so that the poverty we see now all too often among our elderly citizens is not perpetuated into the future.
Back in March of 1983, Mr. Speaker, at a meeting of the Standing Committee on Health, Welfare and Social Affairs, I posed a question to the Minister of National Health and Welfare (Miss Begin) concerning the tragic plight in which so many of our elderly citizens find themselves as a result of inadequate income. I asked her when there might be an increase in the guaranteed income supplement so as to relieve their poverty. The Minister responded in this way. Mind you, this was back in March of 1983. She said that "the cost of bringing the single pensioners over the poverty line . . . has been approved by the Government as their first social spending-whenever we can afford it".
When I posed that question one year ago, Mr. Speaker, it was not the first time it was asked. It was not the last time that it was posed to the Minister, to the Minister of Finance (Mr. Lalonde) and to the Prime Minister (Mr. Trudeau). Each time they were asked about Canada's elderly poor, the Ministers replied that the needs of this group were their top priority and
that legislation to improve their lot would be the first piece of social legislation which would be brought before the House.
Since then the Minister of National Health and Welfare has seen fit to bring in the Canada Health Act. The Government has introduced measures to put restrictions on transfers for post-secondary education. There have been these Bills and others dealing with social issues, but there is still no sign of legislation to address the pressing needs of Canada's 600,000 elderly poor, the group which the Government has said time and again is their top priority.
The fact that we have 600,000 elderly Canadians living in poverty in a country as rich and bountiful as Canada, in a society supposedly as compassionate and humane as ours, is a national disgrace. The fact that this has been allowed to continue month after month, year after year, is a telling indictment of the Government. The Government is bereft of ideas, drained of decency, and unable to recognize the priorities which must be dealt with in this society. I know the Government has its priorities: bail-outs of de Havilland, Cana-dair and Maislin; bonuses for executive officers in de Havilland and the Canada Development Investment Corporation; and the purchase of Petrofina gas stations. We know what the priorities of the Government are. For the people who have, throughout their lifetimes, worked for and contributed to the development of this great country, there is only a promise trotted out time and time again that some day, some time, they too will become a priority.
Is it any wonder, Sir, that today we condemn the Government? We condemn it not only for its failure to introduce legislation that would meet the current needs of today's elderly poor, but also for its failure to bring about long overdue pension reform of the whole system so that we can ensure that the poverty of today will not be meted out to those who will be senior citizens in 10, 20 or 30 years' time. We must begin to come to grips with this issue and reverse what is happening.
Studies, conferences and task forces on pension reform have been going on for years, Mr. Speaker. It would take the rest of my allotted time today to even name all of the conferences and commissions which have taken place, let alone comment on the recommendations which they have put forward. It was the concern about the difficulties encountered by many of today's elderly, and the prospect of even greater numbers being in straitened circumstances in the not too distant future unless corrective measures are taken quickly, that precipitated most of the studies which have taken place. It was the same concern which precipitated the establishment of the all-Party parliamentary task force on pension reform. I want to pay credit to the work of that task force because it worked long and hard
May 10, 1984
and studied the issues. I believe it came up with some very positive and innovative proposals.
First, I want to examine the current situation in this country. Presently there are some 2.5 million Canadians who are over the age of 65. Of those, 600,000 live below the poverty line. What is critical to note is that most of those 600,000 are single and four-fifths of them, or 80 per cent, are women. They are women who, for the most part, worked full time in the home when they were younger and had little or no opportunity to prepare financially for what we so euphemistically term their "golden years". Even if they receive the full Old Age Security and guaranteed income supplement, it is a total of $534 a month or $18 a day. That amount is $2,000 below the poverty line for people living in medium-sized cities across this country, such as Kingston, Sudbury, Sydney, Kelowna and Sherbrooke. People who live in cities like those, where they receive only the Old Age Security and guaranteed income supplement payment, live $2,000 below the poverty line.
The all-Party task force on pension reform recommended that the income for single persons over the age of 65 should be set at two-thirds of the income of married couples. For those most in need, that would mean a maximum increase of $102 a month of the guaranteed income supplement. However, that increase would be based on a sliding scale downward, depending on other additional income that the pensioners might have. It meant that those most in need would receive the largest increase.
The Government chose not to accept that recommendation. Instead, the Minister of Finance in his February Budget proposed to raise the guaranteed income supplement by $25 a month on July 1 and by a further $25 a month in December. That is the proposal that the Government has brought forward and the proposal that I hope will go through Parliament. But I must ask Government Members today, where is the legislation to implement even that increase? It is less than two months before the first half of that $50 increase is supposed to take effect, yet there is no sign of any such Bill on the Order Paper. Surely the Government, with all its bureaucrats and advisers, cannot be having that much difficulty drafting such a simple piece of legislation. Surely that is not difficult. Perhaps we should ask whether it is the will to find a way that is holding the Government back.
Three years ago, the Minister of National Health and Welfare made this statement in the House of Commons, as reported at pages 8609 and 8610 of Hansard on March 25, 1981:
-we have often repeated the commitment of this Government to bring all the senior citizens who now receive the supplement over the poverty line.
Of course, she did not say when. Therein lies the deception. When statements like that are made by a Minister of the Crown, expectations are raised. The elderly poor anticipate that their burdens will be lessened, but nothing happens except that the limited income that they receive gets stretched thinner and thinner as the costs of the bare essentials of life get higher
and higher. Surely if there is any sense of decency and awareness of priorities left in the Government benches at all, it will bring in the legislation that was promised in the February Budget to increase the guaranteed income supplement.
I do not understand what the holdup is. The Government since that time has seen fit to introduce any number of other measures. Why not this one? Why has the Government not felt that this one was as necessary as any other piece of legislation that could be considered by this House? If this Opposition Day motion does nothing else but provoke the Government into taking action in this regard, we will have achieved something really worth while.
Subtopic: BUSINESS OF SUPPLY ALLOTTED DAY, S.O. 62-RETIREMENT INCOME