Rachel Notley would be NDP premier today if the government had started its pension “engagement” before the May 29 election.
But the UCP played down this fully-formed strategy during the campaign, saying it wasn’t an election issue at all.
Four months later they’re spending more than $10 million to stamp the pension in the public mind as a real possibility, and using mythical numbers to do it.
Many views came out in Monday’s first telephone town hall, but one from Doug in Fort McMurray stood out.
“If you expect me to believe anything from this current government, you know what? I’ve got some beautiful, beautiful land that will be coming available out by Fort Hills when Suncor is done with it.”
He was the only caller in 90 minutes to be cut off by the moderator.
Doug had just noted that Premier Danielle Smith said “no” to the pension during the campaign.
Before the vote, Smith said UCP aspirations like the Alberta police force and the pension plan “are not in our campaign because I think we’ve got so many things that we have done that we’re excited about. We’re bringing in $10-a-day daycare.”
She did say those issues could be revisited after the election. Now the pension scheme is a long way beyond revisitation. It’s a full-bore sales job. And we haven’t heard much more about daycare.
Jim Dinning, the former PC treasurer who’s leading the engagement, conducted a reasonably even-handed call-in. He thanked critics and promised to “mark down” the comments for government to see. He said the three panelists are not “advocates.”
But they were ready with plenty of data taken from the government’s report on pensions.
And there’s the problem, highly visible on the pension drive website.
This is not about engagement at all. The goal is to change minds. That begins with the title: “What’s in it for you.”
The UCP promises higher pension payments, lower premiums, even a $5,000 to $10,000 cash bonus upon retirement.
This is based on the premise that Alberta would realize $5 billion a year in “savings,” while extracting a $334 billion payment from Ottawa upon withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan (more than half the national fund).
Those are the most optimistic projections in the report. Lower figures would mean less flexibility in providing benefits or lower premium payments.
Nowhere does the government mention the response from Canada Pension Plan Investments.
“The amount the report says could be extracted from the CPP is impossible and based on an invented formula,” the agency said in a statement.
“Any idea of a withdrawal from the CPP would be complex, fiercely disputed, involve poiltical posturing an would result in risk for Albertans for years to come.”
That’s a powerful warning that even though the province has the technical right to withdraw, Ottawa will dispute almost any amount claimed by Alberta.
In response to all that, the engagement panel mildly concedes that the details could end up in court.
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Alberta pension report’s $334B asset transfer estimate ‘problematic’ and ‘impossible’
Alberta NDP launches own public consultation on pensions
Varcoe: Smith stands firm on big ask for CPP payout in face of fierce criticism
Alberta’s rich entitlement, they say, results from higher historical payments based on “demographics” – a younger, richer population.
The larger reason is Alberta’s extreme good luck in hosting Canada’s major oil and gas deposits. The rest of Canada knows this and would bitterly oppose any serious effort to make off with the national pension.
Meghan from Peace River told the panel she has “deep concerns about the absolute lack of skepticism” around the numbers in the report.
By using the same formula, she noted, Ontario could claim even more than Alberta.
“How would we be responding to this if it was the province of Ontario putting this forward and saying they are entitled to 85 per cent of this very same fund?” she asked.
Many calls to the panel were from people genuinely curious about the pension idea. Others came from advocates.
But the government has already made up it its mind. Now it has until 2025 – the tentative time for a referendum – to make up yours.
Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald