Alberta premier says phone consults more effective for feedback on pension debate


EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says phone beats face-to-face when it comes to gauging public opinion on quitting the Canada Pension Plan, but the Opposition NDP says something this big needs to be in person.

Smith, speaking Saturday on her provincewide call-in radio show, said 300,000 or so people attended public information sessions in late 2019 and early 2020 for the Fair Deal panel, which later urged the government to pursue a referendum on quitting the CPP.

Her office confirmed Monday she misspoke and meant to say 3,000.

Smith said the goal is to get more voices and opinions, and the best way for that is by phone.

“We don’t want to have any barriers,” Smith told listeners on her Your Province Your Premier Corus program.

“We don’t want people feeling like they have to drive for hours to get somewhere. Sometimes it’s not convenient to be able to drop everything and come out for an evening, but it’s (easier) being able to be on a telephone town hall. We think we’ll get more feedback on it.”

The first telephone town hall session by former finance minister Jim Dinning’s panel was set for Monday night for residents in northern Alberta.

There are to be five 90-minute telephone town-hall discussions over six weeks, each session focused on getting feedback from a different region.

The Fair Deal panel was struck by the UCP in 2019 to gauge Albertans’ opinions on whether they were getting a fair return on their investment in Confederation. 

In its final report, it said 2,500 people in total attended its 10 in-person sessions and it received feedback from 320 emails, more than 4,100 online submissions and more than 42,000 responses to its online survey. 

Added together, in-person and text responses totalled 49,137.

The panel noted it also conducted a telephone survey of 1,000 Albertans. 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.

The Opposition NDP says its own survey has garnered 26,000 responses, 90 per cent of which are against the idea of an Alberta Pension Plan. And it said that survey is on top of other public surveys conducted in recent years by a range of groups that suggest consistent majority support for CPP.

NDP house leader Christina Gray criticized Smith’s government for not holding in-person sessions.

“On one of the most important and dangerous questions of recent memory, Danielle Smith is not going to show up,” Gray told reporters.

“She is afraid to tell Albertans the truth.”

The NDP plans to hold its own public town halls online and in-person to hear Albertans’ concerns about leaving CPP. The first NDP online town hall is set for Thursday night.

The government town hall discussions are to revolve around the report commissioned by the government by pension analyst LifeWorks.

Smith released the LifeWorks report when she launched the pension debate, and its findings are critical to the province’s claim that a stand-alone Alberta plan is workable.

To make it work, says LifeWorks, an Alberta plan needs — and is entitled to — more than half of the $575 billion in the CPP fund.

Critics say the report’s math is questionable and the federal government and other provinces would never allow one member to take half the CPP.

The CPP’s governing body, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, estimates Alberta is entitled to 16 per cent.

Smith, asked on her radio show why the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board numbers are not part of the public consultation, said she has asked Finance Minister Nate Horner to reach out to the federal government for its estimates.

“If they have a different number, I’d like them to come back and let us know and then we can have that conversation,” said Smith.

Alberta Finance spokesperson Savannah Johannsen said Monday that Horner is seeking to meet with his federal counterpart, Chrystia Freeland, to discuss a number of issues, including the CPP, before a formal letter is sent.

Johannsen said the Alberta government questions the CPP investment board’s math on the province’s entitlement and also seeks confirmation that the estimate is final. 

“Provinces like Alberta that withdraw significantly less than we contribute would have a greater share of the net assets than provinces that withdraw more,” said Johannsen in a statement.

Dinning’s panel is to report back in the spring on whether there is a public appetite for a stand-alone pension plan. If so, Smith says she will call a referendum, with a majority vote needed to leave CPP. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2023. 

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

The Canadian Press


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