The economic clout of seniors is readily apparent. At election time, their political influence is in full force.
On September 3, the Waterloo Region chapter of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) will host an electoral forum focused on seniors’ issues.
It’s an important event for local candidates in the federal election scheduled for October 19, as older Canadians have consistently voted in much higher numbers than their younger counterparts.
Held at the CIGI Campus in Waterloo beginning at 6:15 p.m., the forum will include Peter Braid (Conservative-Waterloo), Richard Walsh (Green Party-Waterloo), Raj Saini (Liberal -Kitchener Center) and Susan Cadell (NDP- Kitchener Center). Other candidates are expected to join as well, to debate some of the key policy topics at the heart of CARP’s advocacy program.
“For older Canadians the two big issues that have always been neck and neck are financial security in retirement and access to healthcare,” said Susan Eng, vice-president for advocacy at CARP. “Those two broad categories would be on everybody’s list of priorities.”
More specifically, CARP members are interested in seeing improvements to the Canada Pension Plan, not just because it would have an immediate financial benefit for themselves, but rather because they understand the program’s importance and are concerned about their children and grandchildren’s wellbeing. CARP members are also very concerned about healthcare, Eng added, and are particularly interested in seeing reforms in the area of pharmacare.
And candidates would do well to know their stuff, as CARP members are “policy wonks who are engaged in the issues and are some of the most avid voters in the country,” Eng said.
Take the 2011 federal election as an example. There, 75.1 per cent of eligible voters aged 65-74 cast a ballot, while the numbers for those between 55-64 (71.5) and the oldest bracket, 75 plus (60.3) remained relatively high. On the other hand, just 38.8 per cent of those between 18-24 took part. And while the numbers are less striking for Canadians aged 25-34 (45.1), 35-44 (54.4) and 45-54 (64.5), voting numbers clearly skew towards the elderly.
In turn, government spending has increasingly slanted in favour of the old, says Paul Kershaw, a public policy professor at the University of British Columbia who founded the advocacy group Generation Squeeze.
Their statistics show that on average, Canadian governments (at the federal, provincial and municipal levels) spend more than $35,000 each year on citizens over the age of 65, but less than $12,000 for those under 45.
The result has been a squeeze on young people that has seen real wages stagnate or shrink while the cost of living has skyrocketed.
“(Young Canadians) earn thousands less than previous generations even though they are more than twice as likely to have some form of post-secondary education,” Kershaw explained, on the line from a policy conference at Queen’s University in Kingston. “Young Canadians are saddled with larger student debts and are faced with housing prices that are hundreds of thousands of dollars higher than those seen by previous generations. That is representative of a deterioration of our socioeconomic circumstances and our politics have been focused primarily on adapting to the aging population. Which is not unimportant, I want us to do that, but we also need to simultaneously adapt for our 20, 30 and 40s year-olds.”
But while CARP and Generation Squeeze may seem to be inextricably at odds politically, neither organization sees it that way.
“If we are looking for how to ease the financial squeeze, the housing squeeze, the family squeeze and the time squeeze we don’t necessarily have to look at taking away x, y and z resources from our parents and grandparents,” Kershaw said. “We could look at, for example, how we subsidize the mining, oil and gas, and forestry industries and if we actually add all of those together it is much more generous than how we invest in the generation raising kids. Have we found the right balance? Or we could look at the fact that our crime rates are dropping and yet our spending on building prisons and such has increased. Maybe we could reallocate resources from there.”
The point of Generation Squeeze isn’t to aim towards taking funding away from seniors, Kershaw explained, but rather to look at CARP as a source of inspiration for how political mobilization can still work in Canada.