Editorial: ORPP ads reflect misplaced priorities

It’s not in existence yet, but the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan is already coming under scrutiny from the auditor general. In this case, Bonnie Lysyk is taking the Ontario government to task over its recent ads for the new pension scheme. In her annual report in December, she noted concern about potential partisanship in the ads.

While the Ontario government has long had rules allowing the auditor general to reject ads for excessive partisan advantage to the governing party, Ontario’s Liberals significantly weakened Lysyk’s powers last year. The changes stipulate an ad is partisan only if it refers to a member of cabinet or the legislative assembly, includes a party’s name or logo, directly criticizes a party or member of provincial parliament or features a colour associated with the governing party.

Read: Ontario spent $600K on ORPP ads during election: taxpayer group

Not long after the changes, the government came out with ads on the new pension scheme. Around the same time, the Ontario Liberal Party released its own ads in which Premier Kathleen Wynne talked about the need for decent pensions. Under the new rules, Lysyk couldn’t reject the government ads despite the perceived overlap with the Liberal campaign.

Then in August, the government submitted two other ORPP ads for approval, both of which referred to the retirement savings gap. As Lysyk noted in her report, there were factual concerns with the ads, as well as potential partisanship issues given the debate over pensions during the federal election campaign. Again, the new rules meant she couldn’t reject them.

It’s too bad the government has watered down a signature policy limiting a governing party’s ability to use public funds to advance its own interests.

Read: ORPP delay a ‘wise’ move

At the same time, the ads flagged by Lysyk suggest the government is proceeding full steam ahead with the ORPP. Whatever the merits and downsides of that plan may be, it’s clear employers, as well as the record keepers and investment managers who support their retirement offerings, still have questions about some aspects of the ORPP even as the government says it’s going to implement it as of Jan. 1, 2017. [The Ontario government announced on Feb. 16 that the ORPP will be delayed by one year, to Jan. 1, 2018.]

While the government announced some aspects of the design of the ORPP and provided more detail on the criteria for comparable plans on Jan. 26, employers and those that advise them are waiting for clarification on a number of issues amid a short timeline to implement the pension scheme. In the meantime, there’s still some doubt — although it’s diminishing quickly as time goes on — about whether the ORPP will actually happen given the prospects for Canada Pension Plan reform, a proposal many people, including Wynne herself, have said they would prefer. [The federal finance minister announced on Feb. 16 that the CPP would be enhanced before the end of 2016.]

Read: CPP to be expanded within the year

While finance ministers put off a decision on that issue late last year, it still looms as an option that would avoid many of the ORPP’s downsides.

Amid the uncertainty and the limited time remaining, the Ontario government would do better to focus on addressing the lingering questions rather than advertising the benefits of a program people still have
questions about. In addition, there remain other aspects of pension reform — including, as you’ll see in an article in this month’s issue about legislative changes in Quebec — that also require attention.

Let’s put more efforts into those pressing issues rather than dubious ads.

Read: ORPP design and feature details announced

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