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'Doesn't add up': Southern Albertans weigh in on Alberta pension plan proposal

EDMONTON -

The panel gathering feedback on whether Alberta should quit the Canada Pension Plan heard renewed calls Tuesday for hard, negotiated numbers before the issue goes to a referendum.

Panel chairman Jim Dinning also got an earful from one Albertan who called out the province's assertion it is entitled to leave the CPP with $334 billion -- more than half the fund's assets.

“Everyone here, including yourself, knows there's no world - none -- where Alberta gets half the Canada Pension Plan,” the caller, identified as Scott from Medicine Hat, told Dinning.

“It's based on insanity.

“What Alberta says we are entitled to is irrelevant,” he added.

“And if we don't have an actual number from the people who control the CPP of what we would get if we pull out, any referendum is based on a lie.”

Scott, and a number of other callers, called for hard, agreed-upon figures between Alberta and the feds before casting a ballot.

Caller Patrick from Lethbridge said, “I also have a problem with the actual numbers that we've come up with.

“It seems to me that (it's) a real large portion of the CPP that we were basing this on, and the math doesn't add up in my mind.”

Virginia from Lethbridge said, “To me, it doesn't make sense that when we have roughly 12 per cent of the population that Alberta expects that we're going to get half of the Canada Pension (Plan).”

Dinning replied, “It seems implausible, I'll grant you that.”

But he urged Virginia to revisit the Alberta government-commissioned LifeWorks report. LifeWorks computed the $334-billion figure, citing Alberta's relatively younger working population, higher incomes, fewer seniors drawing CPP and years of high contributions from Albertans.

“Nobody else has come up with a recent number to tell us what that actual number is, so the government has gone with the professional actuaries (at LifeWorks) that did this report,” said Dinning.

The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board has estimated Alberta is owed about 16 per cent of the fund, but the Alberta government wants it to show its work.

The 90-minute town hall was the second of five held by Dinning's panel, this one taking questions from residents in southern Alberta.

The first town hall last week, with questions from northern Alberta, also fielded queries on the LifeWorks numbers along with questions on how an Alberta plan would be run: who would manage it; what would the investment mandate be; what about portability, death and disability benefits? Those issues have not been decided.

There were also a number of calls Tuesday questioning why Alberta wants extra pension funds at the expense of other Canadians. If Alberta does well, said some callers, drawing workers from other provinces, why should it begrudge giving back extra in CPP?

“We have to not forget about being part of Canada,” said a caller named Rita from Coalhurst.

Another caller, Wade from Taber, disagreed, saying, “Correct me if I'm wrong, but equalization payments are the process in which we support Canada.”

Dinning's panel is tasked with gaining public feedback on an Alberta pension plan and making a recommendation to Premier Danielle Smith in May on whether to take the issue to a referendum, likely in 2025.

Smith's United Conservative government says Albertans are paying disproportionately into CPP and would get a better deal going it alone.

Government advertising linked to the Dinning panel and an online public opinion survey have been criticized for focusing solely on the $334-billion figure and all the benefits Albertans could accrue from it, including potential one-time payments for retirees, at the expense of the risks and drawbacks.

The LifeWorks report itself states there are risks to going it alone tied to how much money the province gets from the CPP, how the province's economy and demographics shift over time, and how well the Alberta pension plan performs.

Those risks, cited on page 12 of the LifeWorks report, are not mentioned in government advertising.

The government online survey does not ask Albertans if they want to leave the CPP but asks how they would like an Alberta plan to be structured.

Also, the mandate of Dinning's panel, displayed on the government website, does not say it make a specific recommendation on leaving the CPP.

Instead, it asks the panel to consult and then “make recommendations for the Alberta government's consideration on topics of importance to Albertans when considering an (Alberta pension plan).”

The debate has also raised concerns whether Dinning's panel, with its calls for Albertans to focus on the LifeWorks report, is acting as an impartial fact-gatherer or is push-polling for Smith's government.

Dinning responded last Friday, telling the CBC podcast West of Centre, “We are not pompom-wearing cheerleaders or advocates for the Alberta pension plan. We are asking Albertans what they think.”

Earlier Tuesday, Alberta Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the government's $7.5-million advertising and engagement process is not an honest search for input but a sales pitch built on one-sided arguments, cherry-picked facts and absurdly optimistic benefit projections that amount to a “carnival barker pitch.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2023.