Whenever a serious problem needs solving in this country, we take a uniquely Canadian approach: form a commission to study it and report back in a couple of years.

The pension issue is no exception. Last month, the Ontario government announced the creation of an expert commission to examine the legislation governing defined benefit(DB) pension plans in the province. Academic and labour law expert, Harry Arthurs, will chair the commission, which is expected to report back in summer 2008.

My initial reaction—not uncommon among Canadians who learn about the creation of yet another commission— was one of impatience. After all, haven’t the issues surrounding DB funding, surpluses and sustainability been studied to death? No fewer than four consultation papers were released last year alone on how to remedy the problems facing DB plans in Canada.

So, do we need another study? Scott Perkin, president of the Association of Canadian Pension Management, thinks something needs to happen in Ontario.“Ultimately these issues are still unresolved. They need to be resolved,” says Perkin. “As you know, there was some consultation four or five years ago in Ontario and ultimately it didn’t go anywhere,” he adds.

The consultation he’s referring to was, of course, the lead-up to the failed attempt at reform in Ontario with Bill 198. The pension component of that omnibus legislation was poorly understood and poorly communicated, and public opposition to the bill mounted. Sealing the legislation’s fate was its untimely introduction, coming just prior to the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision in the Monsanto case. At the eleventh hour, Ernie Eves’ Conservative government ended up withdrawing the pension surplus reforms contained in the bill.

Will things turn out any better this time? “We didn’t have this sort of expert panel looking at these issues last time around,” says Perkin. “Obviously, it remains to be seen whether that might be a better process to deal with what really are some difficult issues.”

But another historical example provides reason for optimism. In 1977, the Ontario government set up the Royal Commission on the Status of Pensions in Ontario, chaired by Donna Haley. The Haley Commission’s recommendations, released in October 1980, eventually became the basis for The Pension Benefits Act, 1987. The act modernized Ontario’s pension regime and provided employees with greater benefits security.

It took 10 years, but the results were substantial and positive. Given this commision’s more limited scope, Perkin doesn’t think it’ll take a decade to see results this time. “I am certainly expecting that whatever report is issued in the summer of ‘08 by Prof. Arthurs will be taken seriously and acted upon quickly by the government.”

We can only hope our legislators have learned from the mistakes and successes of the past. We can’t wait for another next time.

Don Bisch

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