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Alberta CPP-exit panel argues with callers, tries to persuade naysayers at town hall

danielle smith
EDMONTON -

The panel hearing from Albertans on quitting the Canada Pension Plan argued with callers and tried to persuade naysayers in its third telephone town hall session Thursday night.

Panel chair Jim Dinning fired back at two callers, one of whom said Alberta's claim to half the CPP is nothing but naked greed.

That caller, named Deb, said “If we pull 53 per cent of the assets out (of the CPP) we are going to decimate the pensions for my relatives that live in other provinces.

“I am just sick about that." 

“How can we do that to people that we know and love? How can we be so greedy and so selfish that we are going to take as much as we can for us and leave them out in the cold?

“That is just plain heartless.”

Another caller, named Heather, said the pension debate is “asking Albertans to put ourselves as Albertans first, Canadians second, whereas I think a lot of us identify much more as a Canadian before we identity as an Albertan.”

Dinning responded to both, saying "As an Albertan and as a proud Canadian, I don't feel that Albertans need to take a back seat to anybody in the contributions Albertans make to this country."

He said it's a mathematical fact that Alberta pays in more than it gets back from the rest of the country and at times has been shortchanged.

“I would be troubled if we found ourselves on our heels defending ourselves because somebody suggested that Albertans for whatever reason are greedy," he said.

“I don’t think we are, and I know a number of Albertans who don’t believe they are either."

This was the third of five telephone town halls hosted by Dinning and panel members Mary Ritchie and Moin Yahya.

Dinning stressed at the outset of the evening that they are independent fact-finders taking the pulse of Albertans and reporting back to the province.

The town hall took callers from the Calgary area. Ten of them had technical questions. 

There were six callers who supported creating an Alberta pension plan, saying Albertans deserve a better deal in Confederation as long as the costs are controlled and the risks mitigated.

Their views were not challenged by the panel.

However, Dinning’s panel challenged those who did not want Alberta to leave the CPP. The panel referred them to a third-party report commissioned for the province by analyst Lifeworks that calculates the province is owed half the CPP assets if it leaves.

Panel member Ritchie challenged Deb’s comments that creating an Alberta plan from the ground up would be prohibitively expensive. 

Ritchie stated there may be some savings perhaps from cheaper rents in Alberta compared with Toronto and said the numbers would have to be crunched.

When Heather, a chartered accountant, said math dictates if Alberta leaves there will be an impact on other CPP members, Ritchie, citing the LifeWorks report, said “They would likely have to pay slightly more but we’re not talking a significant amount.”

When caller John expressed an Alberta-only plan could be altered by the whims of the government, panel member Yahya said, even though two-thirds of provinces have to agree to alter the CPP, it could happen there, too.

“The same risk about the provincial government playing with the Alberta pension plan exists in the federal scene, too,” he said.

The bulk of the nine naysayer comments focused on one question: If the CPP is working, why mess with it?

 “It (the CPP) is a world-class system. I’m just wondering, why are we screwing with that?” asked a caller named Dermott.

“Nobody’s trying to screw with anything,” Dinning replied, telling Dermott that creating an Alberta pension plan has drawbacks, as does staying with the CPP.

“There are also risks that the Canada Pension Plan isn't going to continue with the fine performance it’s had. All of those are fraught with risks.”

A caller named Paul asked “Where did this idea for the Alberta pension plan come from?

“I sort of question why it’s coming up now. Is it an issue to distract the population? Is it a way for (Premier) Danielle Smith to say, ‘Screw you, Ottawa?’"

“I’m just aghast that we’re wasting time on something that’s not a huge issue. The Canada Pension Plan is doing very well.”

Yahya responded, saying he sat on Alberta's Fair Deal panel in 2019 and 2020 that heard “some support, strong support” from the public for an Alberta pension plan.

Yahya didn’t mention to the caller the telephone survey conducted by the Fair Deal panel.

The survey of 1,000 Albertans found that two-thirds of those who responded said Alberta deserves a better deal in Confederation -- but well under half _ 42 per cent _ said quitting CPP would help Alberta improve its place in the federation and ranked it near the bottom of ways to secure a better deal from Ottawa.

Dinning’s panel is part of a $7.5-million engagement campaign by Smith's government that has been criticized as a lopsided push-poll designed not to seek Albertans’ opinions but to sway them to accept an Alberta pension plan.

Critics note the government's online survey doesn’t ask Albertans if they want to leave the CPP but how they would like an Alberta plan structured. 

The advertising highlights potential benefits, but not the drawbacks, listed in the Lifeworks report.

The town hall sessions mandate that the discussions revolve around the Lifeworks report and its numbers.

The campaign was launched Sept. 21 and has reverberated across the country, prompting a national virtual meeting of finance ministers last week amid concerns over what an Alberta pullout would do to the CPP.

Dinning is to gather feedback and tell Smith in the spring whether there is interest in an Alberta plan. 

Based on that advice, Smith would decide whether to hold a referendum on leaving the CPP. 

Smith’s government says it is owed 53 per cent of the CPP’s total assets, about $334 billion.

Economists and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board peg the number at about 15 per cent, closer to Alberta’s share of people in the CPP. 

Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said last week Ottawa will have its chief actuary come up with a calculation of how much Alberta should get.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2023.

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