A new book reveals that former finance minister Bill Morneau wanted to break a 2015 Liberal campaign promise to keep Old Age Security eligibility at 65, rather than raising it to 67, out of concern for the huge cost the policy would have on federal finances.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper first announced at the World Economic Forum in January of 2012 that his government intended to raise the eligibility age for OAS. His government’s budget of that year announced that this would be implemented gradually between 2023 and 2029.
The 2012 Conservative budget said the change was necessary because OAS is the federal government’s largest program and it needed to be adjusted to account for the fact that Canadians are living longer and healthier lives.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party defeated Mr. Harper’s Conservatives in the 2015 election in which the Liberals campaigned on a pledge to scrap the OAS change.
Robert Asselin, who played a lead role in drafting the Liberal platform and was then named Mr. Morneau’s budget director in the finance minister’s office, is quoted in a new book saying Mr. Morneau wanted to scrap the OAS promise.
“He saw the costs associated with this measure,” Mr. Asselin said. “He repeatedly urged him not to do it. Prime Minister Trudeau decided to go ahead anyway.”
Mr. Asselin’s description of his time in political life is part of a new French-language book on political staffers called Confidences Politiques, written by Marc-André Leclerc, who was chief of staff to former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. The book includes anecdotes from senior political aides of several parties in federal and Quebec politics, with a focus on staffers from Quebec.
The book covers their interactions with senior political leaders, as well as the personal sacrifices that can come with a life in politics.
The high-level disagreement over the OAS policy is noteworthy in light of the fact that the transition from 65 to 67 would have started next year, had it not been reversed. The federal government is continuing to deal with the fiscal pressures of an aging population, including demands from the provinces for billions more in health transfers.
Neither the Liberals’ 2015 platform nor the 2016 budget put a price tag on the decision to scrap the OAS change. However, the Parliamentary Budget Officer issued a report in 2016 that said it would cost Ottawa an additional $11.2-billion a year once fully implemented.
Mr. Asselin’s comments may also give an indication of what readers can expect when Mr. Morneau releases his own book. Where To from Here: A Path to Canadian Prosperity, is scheduled to be published in January.
Earlier this year, Mr. Morneau’s ghostwriter, John Lawrence Reynolds, told The Globe and Mail that the former minister’s memoir will be tough on Mr. Trudeau.
Mr. Asselin’s quoted comments also discuss the internal negotiations that led up to the 2017 federal budget.
“There was an epic battle between Mr. Morneau, me and the Prime Minister’s Office,” Mr. Asselin said. In the final stages of the budget process, he said Mr. Morneau removed about $7-billion in spending.
“Mr. Morneau put his foot down and said: ‘I can’t accept this.’ For him, it was not acceptable. It was too much. He didn’t think it was a good idea to keep spending at this level. The Prime Minister finally conceded and supported him,” he said.
After the 2017 budget, Mr. Asselin left government for the private sector. He is currently senior vice-president, policy with the Business Council of Canada.
“I adored Mr. Morneau,” he said. “I worked well with him and I have a lot of respect for him. Given the way the Trudeau government is managed, over time, it wouldn’t have worked for me. I often disagreed with the turn to the left, the lack of priorities and the way ministers are managed. That’s why I left after two budgets.”
Mr. Morneau resigned suddenly from the Trudeau cabinet in August, 2020, saying a new finance minister was needed to oversee the long-term economic recovery from the pandemic.
The announcement came shortly after The Globe reported that Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau disagreed over policy responses to the COVID-19 crisis.
Neither Mr. Asselin nor Mr. Morneau immediately responded to requests for comment on the book.