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Feds to consult Canadians on how to fix pension system

OTTAWA -- The federal government is launching a cross-country consultation process to ask Canadians how they think the country's pension plan should be reformed.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said he and his parliamentary secretary Ted Menzies will be staging a string of town-hall meetings, expert roundtables, policy conferences and public online consultations aimed at involving a wide variety of Canadians in the discussion.

The government has already studied the viability of Canada's pension system for more than the year and commissioned a report from economist Jack Mintz that concluded Canada does not have an immediate pension crisis, although he added some groups could be vulnerable in the future.

But some provinces see the problem as immediate and that unless they act now, large portions of the population will not be able to maintain their standard of living when they retire.

British Columbia and Alberta have threatened to set up their own voluntary pension supplement unless Ottawa leads the way and produces a new national plan soon. NDP Leader Jack Layton also called on the government to move on protecting Canadians' pensions immediately, instead of launching another consultation process.

"For heaven's sake, it's time for action," he said, noting that the House of Commons nine months earlier had voted on a series of measures, including beefing up old age security and the Canada Pension Plan, and protection for workers whose pensions are jeopardized because their companies have gone bankrupt.

Flaherty said it was critical that governments proceed with caution because, he said, the current system is generally working well.

"This is an area if one makes changes, these are changes that are made for at least a generation if not longer, so it's very important we exercise extreme prudence," he explained. "One does not rush headlong into this, there are no back of the envelope quick answers to this."

And he said every Canadian has a stake in getting the pension issue right.

"At the end of the day, if we have some Canadians who are not saving adequately for their retirement, then they are going to be looking to other Canadians to help them out," he said.

Flaherty said the government will be looking at four key areas:

-- Beefing up mandatory contributions to the CPP to improve benefits.

-- Adding a voluntary supplement to the CPP, which the minister said would be difficult to administer.

-- Streamlining and expanding the tax inducement system, such as RRSPs and the tax-free savings accounts, to encourage more individual savings.

-- Giving the private sector more leeway to manage huge retirement savings funds, especially for people who have no access to company-sponsored plans.

"All options are on the table," Flaherty said.

The minister added he is hoping the findings will help achieve a consensus among Ottawa and the provinces in time for the upcoming ministers meeting in May, adding that it is "reasonable to expect we'll have a direction and we'll move forward this year."

The government has planned town hall meetings for Charlottetown, Quebec City and Richmond, B.C. It will stage roundtable discussions with experts and stakeholders in St. John's, N.L., Winnipeg and London, Ont.

As well, both the House and Senate finance and banking committees are studying pension reform.

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