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Alberta premier says no referendum on CPP without firm exit number

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EDMONTON -

Premier Danielle Smith says she would not call a referendum on whether Alberta should quit the Canada Pension Plan until there is a firm, finalized number on how much the province would get should it decide to go it alone.

“We're hearing from people. They want to know what the number will be,” Smith told reporters Wednesday after a speech to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

“Albertans will have a hard number.

“I'm not going to go to a referendum if people don't have the information that they need in order to make a decision.”

Smith said the number may come by agreement with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board or may have to be hashed out before a judge.

“It may have to be a court decision because this is legislated under the CPP Act,” said Smith.

“And if the federal government and the CPPIB will not come to the table and talk with us in a reasonable way to get us that number, then we'll probably have to go to a court decision.”

Opposition NDP house leader Christina Gray said Albertans deserve to know the firm numbers before casting a ballot. She said her caucus will hold Smith to her word.

“We need to continue to hold their feet to the fire because they are continuing to push an agenda that Albertans don't support (on the CPP),” said Gray.

Gray pointed out her caucus has heard from 30,000 Albertans in their poll, with 90 per cent or more calling for Alberta to stay in the CPP.

Smith's government has been consulting for more than a month with Albertans on the merits and drawbacks of leaving the CPP and creating an Alberta pension plan.

It has said Alberta is being shortchanged billions of dollars by contributing far more to the pension plan than it gets back and would fare better if it went its own way.

Smith launched the debate on Sept. 21 by releasing a government-commissioned report from consultant LifeWorks.

LifeWorks estimates Alberta is entitled to more than half of all CPP assets - about $334 billion - if it leaves, factoring in investment returns and compound interest.

With that figure, or with even less than that, LifeWorks says Alberta would be able to provide lower premiums and higher payouts.

Alberta seeks 53 per cent of the fund with 15 per cent of the CPP members.

Economists and analysts have delivered counter-figures.

The CPP Investment Board says Alberta is in line for 16 per cent of the CPP fund while other economists put it at around 20 or 25 per cent.

The province has hired former provincial treasurer Jim Dinning to engage with Albertans to gauge their views on the topic and then make a recommendation to Smith next spring on whether there is an appetite for a referendum on leaving CPP.

If there was to be a vote, the plan was for it to happen in 2025 and then, should there be a yes vote, Alberta giving the required three years' notice to leave CPP some time after that.

The Opposition NDP, the CPP board and some callers to Dinning's recent telephone town halls have criticized the $7.5-million engagement process as a thinly disguised propaganda push featuring cherry-picked information and fudged figures to persuade Albertans to vote for an Alberta pension plan.

They point mainly to an online government survey that doesn't ask Albertans if they want to leave the CPP but instead asks them how they would like an Alberta plan structured.

The government's advertising focuses only on the benefits of an Alberta pension plan as outlined in the LifeWorks report, including the possibility of bonus payments for seniors. The LifeWorks report also cites risks and potential downsides for an Alberta plan, but those are not mentioned in the advertising.

Dinning's panel is also not tasked in writing with advising Smith on whether Albertans want to leave the CPP.

Instead, Dinning is mandated to provide information and recommendations on what is top of mind for Albertans when “considering an APP.”

In recent days, the issue has gained traction across the country.

Also Wednesday, federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland agreed to convene a meeting with provincial and territorial finance ministers to discuss Alberta's CPP-exit proposal.

The decision came after Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy called for a meeting in a letter to Freeland, saying Alberta's withdrawal could cause “serious harm over the long term to working people and retirees in Ontario and across Canada.”

Last week, Trudeau said his government will fight to retain the stability and integrity of the CPP, while Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre encouraged Albertans to stay in the federal nest-egg fund.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2023.

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