DAVOS, Switzerland - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has signalled his government will bring forward ``major transformations'' to the country in the coming months - in areas such as the retirement pension system, immigration, science and technology investment and the energy sector.
Of those reforms, Harper said, getting a grip on slowing the rising costs of the country's pension system is particularly critical.
In the wake of Harper's speech, it now appears that the Conservative government could be poised to gradually change the Old Age Security system so that the age of eligibility is raised to 67 from 65.
``In the months to come, our government will undertake major transformations to position Canada for growth over the next generation,'' said Harper. The Conservative government will table a budget in the coming weeks that is expected to set the stage for years of deficit-slashing and government reform.
Harper said the country's aging population has become a backdrop for his concern about how to keep the country strong over the long term.
``If not addressed promptly, this has the capacity to undermine Canada's economic position and, for that matter, that of all western nations well beyond the current economic crises.''
Indeed, Harper said the country's demographics - an aging populating and a dwindling workforce - constitute ``a threat to the social programs and services that Canadians cherish.''
For that reason, he said his government will ``be taking measures in the coming months.''
Harper did not specify what those measures will be, but he said they are necessary - not just to bring the government's finances back to a balanced budget in the medium term, ``but also to ensure the sustainability of our social programs and fiscal position over the next generation.''
``We have already taken steps to limit the growth of our health care spending over that period,'' said Harper.
``We must do the same for our retirement income system.''
Harper said the centrepiece of the public pension system - the Canada Pension Plan - is fully funded, actuarially sound and does not need to be changed.
But he added: ``For those elements of the system that are not funded, we will make the changes necessary to ensure sustainability for the next generation while not affecting current recipients.''
So far, the government has come forward with a plan to create a private pooled pension system to encourage Canadians to prepare for their retirement.
Still, there are concerns that as baby boomers approach retirement, the cost to government of providing public pensions will skyrocket.
In December, the National Post reported that there was internal debate within the government about increasing the age of eligibility for the other major element of the public pension scheme - Old Age Security - from 65 to 67.
Internal government documents project the cost of the OAS system will climb from $36.5 billion in 2010 to $48 billion in 2015. By 2030 - when the number of seniors is expected to climb to 9.3 million from 4.7 million now - the cost of the program could reach $108 billion.
Among the other priorities where change is coming:
The Conservative government will make it a ``national priority'' to ensure the country has the ``capacity to export our energy products beyond the United States, and specifically to Asia.''
``In this regard, we will soon take action to ensure that major energy and mining projects are not subject to unnecessary regulatory delays - that is, delay merely for the sake of delay.''
Harper did not explain what he has planned, although he and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver have complained that foreign-backed ``radical'' opponents of the $5.5-billion Northern Gateway project have threatened to slow down hearings by the National Energy Board.
The system faces ``significant reform,'' said Harper.
``We will ensure that, while we respect our humanitarian obligations and family reunification objectives, we make our economic and labour force needs the central goal of our immigration efforts in the future.''
The government will continue to make ``key investments in science and technology'' that are necessary to sustain a ``modern competitive economy.''
``But we believe that Canada's less-than-optimal results for those investments is a significant problem for our country.''
In future, he said, there will be changes to rectify that problem.
Harper expects to complete negotiations on a Canada-European Union free-trade agreement this year.
Furthermore, he said, his government is committed to also completing negotiations for a free-trade deal with India by the end of 2013.
And Canada will begin talks to become a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership while also pursuing opportunities to trade in the emerging market of Asia.
Harper arrived Wednesday at the World Economic Forum determined to tout Canada as a trading nation with a solid economic record and massive oil resources which are ready to be sold and shipped to customers worldwide.
Other members of cabinet who are attending the conference in the exclusive mountainside resort in the Swiss Alps are Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, International Trade Minister Ed Fast and Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney.
Harper issued a scathing criticism of countries in the developed world, which he suggested had forgotten about the importance of creating economic growth. ``Is it the case that, in the developed world, too many of us have in fact become complacent about our prosperity?'' Harper asked.
He suggested that developed countries had taken wealth ``as a given . . . assuming it is somehow the natural order of things.''
Stephen Harper says `major' changes coming to Canada's pension system: speech