Policy Change and the Politics of Ideas: The Emergence of the Canada/Quebec Pension Plans

By Babich, Kristina; Beland, Daniel | Canadian Review of Sociology, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Policy Change and the Politics of Ideas: The Emergence of the Canada/Quebec Pension Plans


Babich, Kristina, Beland, Daniel, Canadian Review of Sociology


IN RECENT YEARS, A GROWING NUMBER of scholars have put forward theoretical frameworks aimed at explaining policy change in advanced industrial societies (e.g., Campbell 2004; Hacker 2004; Thelen 2004). A major aspect of this debate on the sources of policy change is the claim that ideas can directly impact key policy decisions (Blyth 2002; Campbell 2004; Cox 2001; Lieberman 2002; Schmidt 2002). Using the example of the emergence of the Canada and the Quebec Pension Plans (C/QPP), this article shows how paying systematic attention to ideas can enrich the study of policy change without necessarily downplaying the potential role of other factors like political institutions and electoral competition.

Adopted in 1965, the C/QPP provide earnings-related pensions to workers aged 65 and older. With a replacement rate of only 25 percent, the C/QPP are modest public pension programs that leave much room for private savings and occupational pensions (e.g., Beland and Myles 2005; Boychuk and Banting 2008; Myles 1988a). The aim of this article is to shed new light on the creation of the C/QPP by answering two closely related questions: in the mid-1960s, why did the federal government decide to create an earnings-related public pension system on the top of the existing flat-rate pension (Old Age Security [OAS])? Second, and more specifically, why did that system feature a higher than initially proposed replacement rate and a separate scheme for the province of Quebec? In order to answer these questions, the article proposes an analysis of the debates leading to the enactment of the C/QPP. Taking into account the interaction between federalism, electoral competition, and changing social policy ideas at both the federal and the provincial levels, this systematic analysis stresses the direct impact of ideas on policy change as well as the electoral and institutional conditions under which new policy ideas are more likely to shape concrete political decisions. Overall, the article suggests that, in order to explain policy change better, researchers should pay closer attention to policy ideas and to the electoral and institutional conditions under which new ideas can shape such decisions.

Four sections comprise this article. The first section reviews the relevant literature on policy change before suggesting that turning to ideas can help explain this type of change, especially when one recognizes how such ideas can interact with factors like federalism and electoral competition. (1) The second section presents historical background about pension reform in Canada from the 1920s to the early 1950s. Focusing on electoral competition and changing social policy ideas, the next section offers a discussion of major debates and events leading to the enactment of the C/QPP in 1965. As for the final section, it covers the role of two sets of forces that strongly impacted this enactment process: federalism and provincial influence; and changing ideas about social policy and the role of the state, at both the federal and the provincial level, especially in Quebec. (2)

THEORETICAL ISSUES

Since the 1980s, historical institutionalism has emerged as one of the most prominent approaches to understanding policy development in advanced industrial societies (e.g., Immergut 1998; Skocpol 1992; Steinmo, Thelen, and Longstreth 1992; Weaver and Rockman 1993). (3) This influential approach is rooted in the assumption that historically constructed institutions like federalism create political opportunities and obstacles that strongly impact the behavior of policymakers and interest groups. In other words, historical institutionalism "understands political activities, whether carried out by politicians or by social groups, as conditioned by institutional configurations of governments and political party systems" (Skocpol 1992:41). Unlike organizational or rational choice institutionalism, historical institutionalism focuses on political institutions and the impact of past decisions on policymaking (Campbell 2004; Hall and Taylor 1996). …

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