Inspiration: Harry Arthurs’ push for monitoring mechanisms

Harry Arthurs is the first to admit he didn’t have any academic or practical experience in the area of pension policy when he took on the role of chair with the Ontario Expert Commission on Pensions in 2006. But he thinks that’s precisely why he was the right man for the job.

“Most people who really know these fields have taken very strong positions,” he comments. “They typically represent employers or service providers, or they’re professionals who practise in the field or advocates for policy positions within the field. If government wants somebody to take a fresh look at [policy], it can’t very well turn to people who’ve declared their positions.”

Arthurs’ neutrality in the area of pension policy—along with his background in labour relations, his outstanding reputation in academia (he’s been made a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and an officer of the Order of Canada, to name just two accolades) and his experience as a mediator and arbitrator—all helped to establish him as the ideal person to lead the commission responsible for pinpointing problems in Ontario’s pension system. His work would be the first review of the provincial system in more than 20 years.

What Arthurs found surprised him. After an 18-month period of study and analysis alongside his team of advisors, he found a pension system that was slow and clunky.

“I came to feel that the parties, in a sense, had gotten so locked into their advocacy positions that maybe they weren’t seeing the facts as clearly as they might,” he says.

The biggest concern Arthurs had was with the lack of recordkeeping. He found that there was minimal data, and the data that was there wasn’t being analyzed. “Literally, no one could tell me how many people were covered by a pension plan in Ontario.”

Pension plans have to submit their numbers to the Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO). But since FSCO’s business is regulation and not policy development, says Arthurs, the numbers being collected weren’t being interpreted. “Nobody was really in charge of collecting and analyzing numbers.”

This discovery led to what Arthurs considers one of his key recommendations: a strong push for regular monitoring, analysis and sharing of data regarding Ontario pensions—something, he says, that’s essential for making good pension policy.

“If I made one contribution, I hope it’s that I sensitized everybody to the need to understand what is actually going on and, therefore, to keep and analyze records of who’s covered and who isn’t.” Arthurs says that goes back to everyone engaged in pensions taking a certain position on them. He explains that many of the stakeholders involved in the commission “were throwing around generalities that frequently turned out not to be supported by evidence. [We need to] get the stakeholders, through their engagement with the facts, into the habit of talking sensibly to the government and to one another about what’s happening.”

Today, Arthurs is continuing to apply his fresh eyes and perspective to public policy; in January of this year, he completed a report for the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board focused on the funding of workers’ compensation in Ontario. It’s work he finds rewarding as he continues to delve into new areas of the province’s employment and benefits system.

“It’s always interesting and worthwhile to get into something you don’t know anything about, to have an opportunity to extend your horizons.”

Tammy Burns is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto.

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