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Alberta government won't say if it will hold December in-person CPP-exit town halls

EDMONTON — The Alberta government won’t confirm if it will follow through on its promise to meet with citizens face to face in December to discuss quitting the Canada Pension Plan.
Danielle Smith discusses the results of a report on the creation of an Alberta pension plan. Government of Alberta photo

EDMONTON — The Alberta government won’t confirm if it will follow through on its promise to meet with citizens face to face in December to discuss quitting the Canada Pension Plan.

The Opposition NDP, meanwhile, says it is ramping up its in-person events, adding that if Premier Danielle Smith’s United Conservatives want to run Albertans’ retirement savings, they must look them in the eye to explain why.

A government panel led by former Alberta finance minister Jim Dinning concludes on Wednesday the final of five telephone town-hall sessions gauging public interest in a separate Alberta pension plan. 

Dinning promised callers on Oct. 16 that there will be in-person meetings in December, calling such face-to-face events critical to narrowing down core concerns.

Asked Tuesday about the December events, Savannah Johannsen, spokesperson for Finance Minister Nate Horner, said in a statement, “Once the November telephone town halls have concluded, the panel will have more to say on future engagement opportunities.” 

The NDP began holding in in-person town-hall sessions last week, with close to 500 people at an event in Edmonton. The NDP said the overwhelming consensus from those who came was to leave the CPP alone.

In question period Tuesday, NDP house leader Christina Gray urged Smith and her cabinet ministers to attend the NDP events and talk to Albertans. 

Horner, in reply, extolled the Dinning panel telephone town halls, but didn’t mention the previously promised in-person events.

He also suggested Wednesday’s telephone town hall might be the final formal feedback session of the year.

“We look very much to getting a break here around Christmas and hearing from Mr. Dinning about the feedback he's heard so far, what questions remain, and what the next steps (will) be in this conversation with Albertans,” said Horner.

The NDP on Tuesday announced five in-person town halls starting Nov. 30 in St. Albert, Alta., and ending Dec. 14 in Calgary.

NDP energy critic Kathleen Ganley said Smith’s government needs to meet with Albertans.

“It’s an issue that this government refused to speak about while we were in the (May) election,” Ganley told reporters.

“The least they could do is look these Albertans in the eye and face them, and tell them what it is they are planning to do and hear their very legitimate feedback.”

Dinning’s panel has also promised to distribute an online workbook to solicit more ideas from Albertans on whether the province should go it alone with a pension plan. Johannsen said that workbook will be available by the end of the week.

The NDP has dismissed Alberta’s engagement process as a thinly disguised push poll, noting the government's online survey asks Albertans what kind of provincial pension plan they want and that the ad campaign highlights the benefits while playing down the risks of going it alone.

Gray told Horner, “While this UCP government is relying on biased surveys, hand-picked callers on telephone town halls (and) multimillion-dollar ad campaigns based on misinformation, our NDP caucus is genuinely reaching out to people and asking them what they think.

“And the message we’re getting back is loud and clear — the UCP needs to keep their hands off Albertans’ CPP.”

The consultation was started Sept. 21 by Smith. 

It is based on a government-commissioned report that calculates Alberta, with its relatively higher incomes and younger population, could set up its own plan and is owed $334 billion, more than half the assets of the CPP on its way out the door.

Dinning's panel is to advise Smith in the spring on what Albertans think of an stand-alone provincial plan and, based on that advice, Smith is to decide whether to take the issue to a referendum.

Other provinces have expressed concern about what would happen to CPP if Alberta left. In response, federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has asked the chief actuary to provide an estimate.

Smith has said if the feds and Alberta can’t agree on an exit number, the issue may have to be decided by the courts — a process that could take years.

As the debate continues, other voices are weighing in.

The Alberta Federation of Labour, in a report issued last week, stated an Alberta-only plan is a high-risk venture given it would have a smaller pool of money directed at the whims of a single provincial government and based on a “fantasy” portion of CPP assets that Ottawa and the other provinces would never agree to.

Former Alberta finance minister Travis Toews, in an editorial last week, said the calculation that Alberta deserves half the assets needs to be embraced as a legitimate reflection of Alberta’s “outsized” contribution to the national nest-egg fund.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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