Editorial: Looking back — and ahead — in an unprecedented year

It’s an election year and, of course, I have a lot of opinions. But I’ll try to keep my political leanings as neutral as possible and simply lay out the facts.

This issue will hit desks days before the federal election. However, as I write these words in mid-September, the main parties are just rolling out their platforms, with quite a few campaign promises related to our industry.

While the Conservative Party hadn’t introduced a formal platform at press time, it did pledge in August to make parental benefits tax-free.

In its platform, the Liberal Party also promised tax-free parental benefits, as well as a new 15-week leave for adoptive parents, a strengthened old-age security benefit and an increase in the survivor’s benefit under the Canada Pension Plan and the Quebec Pension Plan.

Read: Liberals pledging to boost investments in mental health, pharmacare

It also promised to take the “critical next steps” towards a national pharmacare program, and committed to establish the Canada Drug Agency, implement a national formulary with provinces, territories and other stakeholders to lower drug prices and introduce a rare disease drug strategy to help Canadians save money on high-cost drugs.

The New Democratic Party promised to establish a $15-per hour federal minimum wage and grow it to a “living wage.” It also pledged to modernize additional sections of the Canada Labour Code, including rules that would require employers to offer the same benefits to contract and part-time workers that are available to full-time staff.

The NDP also said, if elected, the party would immediately begin working with the provinces to target a late 2020 start date for a universal drug program, with an annual federal investment of $10 billion; develop a road map to include dental care in the Canada Health Act; and make mental-health, eye and hearing care available to all Canadians at no cost.

In pension measures, the NDP said it would ensure pensioners take priority if a company goes bankrupt, and would prevent companies from paying out dividends and bonuses when their pensions are underfunded. It also pledged to create a mandatory, industry-financed pension insurance program, protect public sector defined benefit plans and support efforts to improve Canadians’ retirement financial literacy. The party also intends to create a pension advisory commission to develop plans to enhance OAS and the guaranteed income supplement and strengthen the CPP.

Read: What pension issues are parties highlighting in run-up to federal election?

The NDP has also pledged to support parents by creating a new special leave that would allow them to take a shorter parental leave at higher income replacement rates; increase the replacement rate from 55 per cent to 60 per cent; create a low-income supplement so that everyone receiving EI benefits receives at least $1,200 per month; and establish a universal qualifying threshold for EI benefits of 360 hours to make it easier for more Canadians to access them.

In its platform, the Green Party of Canada promised a “guaranteed livable income;” a universal pharmacare program; basic dental care for low-income Canadians; a national mental-health strategy “to address the link between mental wellness and work productivity;” and the development of national health-care guidelines that incentivize active lifestyles and healthy diets and choices.

On the subject of the CPP, the Green Party is calling for a gradual increase of the target income replacement rate, from 25 per cent to 50 per cent, and said it would mandate that the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board divest from coal, oil and gas shares.

So it’s fair to say the main parties are covering off a lot of ground in the human resources, benefits and pension industries, with potential upsides for employers and employees alike.

Read: Federal election platforms include health-care, pension policy proposals

However, the world of work is shifting dramatically and our governments really have to stay ahead of these changes. Working Canadians are the economic life force of this country; if legislation isn’t in place to embrace the way we’re now working, that well will eventually run dry.

Of course, I’m in favour of tax breaks for new parents, stricter protections around pension plans and universal access to prescription drugs and dental benefits. But one of the leading challenges for our industry is the reality of today’s evolving workplace — and workforce — and I’d urge our next government to look at stronger rules reflecting this reality.

Today’s workforce includes five generations. The gig economy is growing. We’re all living longer. We have increasingly competing financial priorities. Perpetually low interest rates will keep our pension plans, which are mostly defined contribution, from delivering the kind of retirement income enjoyed by previous generations of retirees.

Read: Head to head: Is it time to change the retirement age?

One hot issue of elections past — the retirement age — hasn’t appeared this time around, despite Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals previously facing off on the issue. But given the evolving changes around demographics and longevity, this month’s Head to Head considers whether it’s time to raise the retirement age.

I’m sure more campaign promises are on their way. However, I firmly believe the evolution of the Canadian workforce and the way we work is affecting both employers and employees, and our next government must look at ways to guide these changes into a productive and profitable future for Canada.

Jennifer Paterson is editor of Benefits Canada.