Nfld. & Labrador

Gushue: Why pensions may be Tom Marshall's legacy

Tom Marshall has disproved any notions that he would simply keep the lights on at the premier's office by brokering a breakthrough deal on pensions, writes John Gushue.
Premier Tom Marshall brokered a new deal on public service pensions in what are expected to be the final weeks of his government. (CBC)

Some politicians leave the stage abruptly, while others don't seem to notice they've been given the hook. There aren't many like Tom Marshall, who's made no secret of his intention to retire, and who seems increasingly stuck in a position of high office.

Marshall took over as interim premier in January, when an exasperated Kathy Dunderdale — who clearly had been preparing to step down in the winter or spring — sped up the terms of her exit amid grumbling over her handling of power outages and unhappiness within the Tory caucus.

The thinking had been that Marshall wouldn't be around much longer, either. Marshall, who's been the MHA for Humber East since 2003, said as much at the time, so it appeared that Marshall would effectively keep the lights on, get the mail and generally keep the premier's office running while the party picked a new leader.

Well, things did not quite go according to plan. The Tory leadership process — and that's an understatement of a word to call it — has put the party on one weird path, with no permanent leader in place and autumn looming.

Some of those fabled #darknl babies will be born just as the new premier gets settled in.

No placeholder at all

And, as it turned out, Tom Marshall has been no placeholder premier at all.

NAPE's Carol Furlong is blunt about the importance of striking a deal while Tom Marshall is still in office. (CBC)

Actually, he signalled that right off the bat. Within a week of being signed in, he ordered a review of the province's access to information legislation, in particular Bill 29, the legislation that not only restricted the amount of information that the public can access, but the one that gave the Tories the image of people who had something to hide. Right or wrong, it's been an indelible stain on their reputation.

But I think the pension deal that Marshall announced last Tuesday will be the thing for which he will be remembered. Marshall and Charlene Johnson, who made her own exit as finance minister and MHA just a few days later, struck a deal with five unions.

It was a remarkable sight. I've been covering politics since the Peckford era, and there have been concerns about public service pensions all along.

Not a single premier, though, has been able to get the unions to the table, and to agree to a deal that even attempts to resolve a multi-billion-dollar liability in pension payouts. With the baby boom generation now moving well into retirement years, and knowing that post-retirement years will be much longer than even just two generations ago, that liability is darn scary.

I'm not sure about the deal that's been struck, particularly over the fact that it will take three decades to get in the clear.

But, politically, what Marshall has achieved is remarkable.

Politicians have been talking for years about the need to do something. Marshall actually did something.

The Marshall factor

Indeed, Marshall himself may have been the magnet that drew unions — who in the past appeared to be more interested in continually kicking the can down the road to the table.

NAPE president Carol Furlong said as much during an interview with Anthony Germain on the St. John's Morning Show.

"We felt we could get a far better deal now with government, while he was a premier, than with an unknown entity down the road," said Furlong, in a moment of candour that described why there was pressure to get a deal … and, indeed, why there was so much radio silence in the last weeks while the talks were underway.
Both Tom Marshall and Charlene Johnson seemed relieved in announcing a new deal on pensions. (CBC )

"We were cognizant of the fact that Tom Marshall supported a defined benefits plan, which is significant for us because we've seen other plans that have been under the gun, where [employers] have been trying to turn to a defined contribution plan," she said.

With a defined benefits plan, a pensioner knows what will be on the cheque. With a defined contribution, they won't, since it operates more like an RRSP, and payouts can be dramatically affected.

Not many employers have the financial resources to take on the burden of a defined benefit plan, let alone one that is indexed. [The provincial plan, incidentally, is not indexed at the moment, and I was curious to note that union leaders would like to see that suspension removed. Good luck with that!]

Not the sexiest legacy

Governments can handle that kind of commitment, to the chagrin, I noticed, of workers who have no pension at all. I was actually struck by the vitriol that some of these people expressed when the deal was announced – not over the details of the deal, but the very fact that public servants receive a pension in the first place.

I know it's not the sexiest of legacies, but in terms of [the] finances of the province, it probably is not a half-bad legacy to have- Richard Alexander

Next weekend, the Tories will choose between Paul Davis, Steve Kent and John Ottenheimer, and effectively pick the next premier.

I'm sure there'll be more than just a kind word said about Marshall as he (finally) gets ready to take his leave, not just as the top politician, but the MHA for Humber East.

Outside the convention hall, I expect Marshall will get a proverbial round of applause for taking on an issue that's dogged his predecessors.

I liked how Richard Alexander, the executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers Council, put it. The Employers Council, understandably, has concerns about defined benefit plans, but Alexander said the deal brings stability to taxpayers.

"I know it's not the sexiest of legacies, but in terms of [the] finances of the province," Alexander said, "it probably is not a half-bad legacy to have. Sexiest of legacies, but in terms of [the] finances of the province," Alexander said, "it probably is not a half-bad legacy to have."

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.


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