Dozens of recommendations were put before the Ontario Expert Commission on Pensions. Is the finance minister listening?

Almost a year to the day since former Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara announced its creation, the Ontario Expert Commission on Pensions wrapped up its public hearings last month in Windsor, Ont. The commission, led by academic and labour law expert Harry Arthurs, held 12 days of hearings in cities across the province. And it heard more than 70 submissions from pension funds, industry associations, consultants, unions, think tanks, law firms and other stakeholders.

The commission’s mandate is to review the province’s Pension Benefits Act, the rules governing the funding, deficits and surpluses of defined benefit (DB) pension plans, and other issues relating to the security, viability and sustainability of the pension system.

During the five weeks of hearings, commissioner Arthurs and his five advisory panel members have listened, asked questions and considered the suggestions put before them. Many recommendations centred on easing solvency funding requirements, dealing with risk asymmetry and addressing falling pension coverage in the province. Other recommendations were well-intentioned but probably overly optimistic, such as calls to harmonize the country’s pension laws. Others still were in outright conflict with one another. For instance, while the Canadian Auto Workers recommended improvements to Ontario’s Pension Benefits Guarantee Fund, the Pension Investment Association of Canada argued for its disbanding.

Now the commission has the difficult task of taking these disparate proposals and drafting its final report, which is due by next summer. If all goes well, that report will provide the blueprint for fixing the pension system in the province.

There is, however, one potential wrinkle. Earlier this fall, Mr. Sorbara resigned his post on cabinet to spend more time with his family. Dwight Duncan now fills the minister of finance chair. Having held the finance portfolio for seven months in late 2005 and early 2006, Mr. Duncan should at least be familiar with the challenges surrounding the pension file. Whether he is as committed as Mr. Sorbara to fixing the pension situation in Ontario remains to be seen.

Ontario’s last attempt at pension reform—in Bill 198—never made it past the legislature. Given the precarious state of DB plans, it’s critical that this attempt doesn’t meet the same fate. Ontario’s pension stakeholders have spoken. Let’s hope Mr. Duncan is paying attention.

Don Bisch is the editor of BENEFITS CANADA.

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© Copyright 2007 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the December 2007 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.