POLITICS

Federal Parties Pitching Policies Aimed At Older Canadians

09/14/2015 04:53 EDT | Updated 09/14/2016 05:12 EDT
TORONTO — With the population aging and given that seniors tend to cast ballots, the main political parties have been aggressively pitching policies aimed at appealing to this increasingly important voting bloc.

Older folk have become a key demographic, perhaps more so than in any previous election, with more than five-million baby boomers now eligible for senior's discounts and many more of them to come.

The last federal election appears to have marked a turning point — when the first of the boomer wave were hitting 65.

"We noticed in 2011 that the political campaigns were taking very seriously and in a new way the importance of older voters," Michael Nicin, policy director for the 300,000-strong Canadian Association of Retired People, said Monday.

Data show that older voters tend to vote at much higher rates than the general population and their numbers are expected to rise for another 15 years. The result is a demographic that is growing in political importance.

"All the parties, some more than others, are picking up where they left off in 2011 and going hard after the older vote," Nicin said. "That's given us a lot of clout when bringing issues to politicians."

Pledges aimed squarely at seniors have come fast and furious in recent days with both the Liberals and NDP promising more money for them — either directly or through enhanced health-care services.

On Monday, for example, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised the association he would enhance the Canada Pension Plan and, in a specific pledge that caught the eye of activists, provide more money for single, low-income seniors. On Sunday, the New Democrats pledged $400 million more to increase the guaranteed income supplement for the poorest seniors — about 600,000 of whom live in poverty, according to Statistics Canada figures.

The Liberals and Democrats are also promising to again allow Canadians to collect the old age security benefit at age 65. In 2012, the Conservatives committed to raising the age to 67 — a change critics argue will cost the poorest seniors about $13,000 once it takes effect.

In addition, Mulcair has pledged $1.8 billion over four years to help the provinces expand home care for seniors, create more nursing beds, and improve palliative care.

For their part, the Conservatives have so far relied mostly on senior-friendly policies they put in place in the government's pre-campaign budget.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has talked up his government's doubling of the amount people can contribute to their tax-free savings accounts — a measure popular with older Canadians — as well as the relaxation of rules around withdrawals from registered retirement funds.

While coming up with policies that appeal broadly to seniors might seem like a no-brainer, doing so is not as easy as it might seem, observers say, because they do not form a monolithic bloc and have a range of political views and interests.

"Some older people are still employed and earning income; many more are retired; all still pay income tax, whether their income is in the form of public and private pensions, investment income or other sources," said Tom Klassen, a professor of political science at York University.

"As a result, getting the older vote is hard work."

Harry Kitchen, a retired professor of economics at Trent University, said vote-coveting parties should refrain from throwing money at seniors as a group.

"I'm not saying some seniors should not get assistance — of course they should if they're poor, just like somebody who is 30 or 40 should if they're poor — but I don't think they should be treated differently," Kitchen said.

"If you do continue to give seniors perks, you're asking somebody else to pick up the shortfall either in the form of higher taxes or higher fees for certain services."

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