02/07/2012 01:18 EST | Updated 04/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Government Blindsided Seniors on Retirement Reform

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I see that the NDP's Irene Mathyssen, Wayne Marston, and Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe have launched a cross country tour to save the Old Age Security (OAS) program. What they are saving it from we don't know as of now. It might be a bit early in the game for the NDP to adopt that strategy as 1) we don't have the details of what the government plans to do and 2) there is a lot more the opposition could be doing in Question Period to both get those answers and hold the Conservatives to account.

As Canadians watched the events unfold in Europe over the last couple of years, we saw plenty of news stories indicating that governments there were going after pensions as a way to help deal with their economic issues. There were also stories about Canadians being worried about whether or not their pensions would be adequate for when they retired. We also followed the struggles of the Nortel pensioners with both the federal and provincial governments. So the fact that the pension issue is on the minds of both the government and the population isn't a surprise. The way this government chose to deliver this issue was what surprised Canadian seniors.

My take is that the government was caught flat-footed on this issue. Its reaction to the blow-up in the media was slow and it took them a couple of days to get its lines really sorted out. Now its on track with the same monotonous lines delivered by all of their ministers. It is notable though that individual Conservative MPs have been silent even though they must be deluged by emails, letters.

The real hit to the government though comes on the issue of trust. They blind-sided Canadians with this issue. There was no build up to it, no preparing the way for difficult pension decisions. Nor was it raised during the recent election. Canadians, especially those nearing retirement age rightly want to know what is going on and when these decisions were made. On that issue the government is vulnerable.

Major political decisions like this usually follow a process (even in this PMO centralized government). When were the memos or briefing notes prepared on this issue? Were they prepared by the Privy Council Office (PCO) or by the PMO? What recent reports or studies did the government receive that indicated it was essential to move on the OAS issue now? Which cabinet committees reviewed the decision to move on OAS? Usually hot political issues go through the Operations Committee first -- did it this time? When was the decision reviewed by the full cabinet? Was caucus consulted? There are lots of questions, few answers. But so far the government prefers to stonewall as opposed to addressing what is really a very emotional issue for seniors.

Those questions don't even touch on the details of what the government needs to do on the pension front nor does it touch on what changes they are contemplating for the OAS. Saying that all options are on the table implies there are different options -- what are they? It may very well be that the discussion around changing the recipient's age from 65 to 67 is the best option, but Canadians don't have a clue listening to the government's response to date. The government has handed the opposition parties an opportunity to chip away at the trust factor. It is still about when did they know and why did they do it?

Governments are rarely defeated on one big issue, instead over time they defeat themselves with trust and arrogance being two main factors. On the trust issue they are now vulnerable (although they still have time to turn this around). How the Conservatives move this issue forward will help to define themselves and the next election even if it is years away.