EDMONTON — The board of the Canada Pension Plan says Alberta’s consultation with its citizens on quitting the CPP is not a straightforward fact-finding exercise but rather a biased manipulation of public opinion.
Alberta Finance Minister Nate Horner, in response, says he welcomes all feedback but says the CPP is not an innocent bystander given the disproportionately large share of assets it accrues from his province.
The CPP launched its criticisms of Alberta’s pension exit public survey and advertising campaign in a letter Tuesday to Jim Dinning, the heading of a panel collecting public input on whether Alberta should leave the CPP.
“We respectfully want to flag to you as head of the panel some troubling elements that in our view undermine the transparency, fairness, and integrity of the consultation process that has been put forward to the public so far,” Michel Leduc, the senior managing director of the CPP Investment Board, writes to Dinning.
Leduc focuses on the government’s online survey that was launched Sept. 21, the same day Premier Danielle Smith announced the debate on creating a stand-alone Alberta pension plan.
That day, Smith released a third-party report from pension analyst LifeWorks that calculated Alberta deserves more than half the $575 billion in CPP assets and could deliver higher payouts and lower contribution rates.
The government survey does not ask Albertans if they want to leave the CPP but rather asks them preferences on setting up the Alberta plan. Dinning told a telephone town hall Monday that this is, by design, saying the first step is to find out what Albertans want to see in a stand-alone plan.
Critics, including callers on Monday’s town hall, called the approach unfair.
The CPPIB, in its letter, said a third-party market research firm it contracted to analyze the survey also determined it failed to meet the basic standards of public consultation.
The report by Innovative Research Group said the survey gives respondents an uncontextualized rosy picture of benefits for Albertans based on one report while failing to report the risks or potential downside of Alberta going it alone.
“In the absence of providing any information surrounding the potential risks of a proposed APP to Albertans, the (Dinning) panel has failed to meet their mandated commitments and does not meet the basic principles for meaningful public consultation,” wrote Innovative.
Leduc added, “The survey is unfortunately formulated to direct opinions rather than seek them.”
Leduc said the same problem arises with the government’s $7.5-million advertising rollout to educate Albertans on the pension debate. Again, he said, the advertising promises great returns while not mentioning the risk, calling it “undisguised in its bias toward the (Alberta Pension Plan).”
He told Dinning, “To ask people their views informed solely by this one-sided presentation is, we hope you would agree, incompatible with the honest and open survey of public attitudes we hope you will undertake.”
The Innovative Research Group said recent comments by Horner have contributed to the question of whether the process is fair. It noted Horner said last week the government would not accept an Alberta pension plan using the Quebec investment model despite Smith saying it would be considered.
Horner’s department now says the Quebec model is back on the table but hasn’t said why.
The Innovative report said Horner’s comment suggests the fix is in on how the pension plan will be structured and “implies the Alberta government is not taking the consultation process seriously.”
The CPPIB is asking to speak to Dinning’s panel and to Albertans to present its views, numbers and risks linked to Alberta leaving CPP. The CPPIB has estimated if Alberta left, it would receive about 16 per cent of the CPP’s assets.
Horner, in a statement, said he encourages debate but wants to see some hard, verified numbers.
“The CPPIB has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, given Alberta’s significant share of the assets they invest,” said Horner.
“I am frustrated that while the CPPIB has not hesitated to publicly criticize the LifeWorks report, they have yet to provide any evidence refuting its findings.
“If CPPIB has its own expert actuarial analysis on the creation of an Alberta pension plan, I would be eager to see it.”
Dinning’s panel is to gather public opinion for the next few months, then submit a recommendation to Smith in the spring on whether there is a public appetite in Alberta for a stand-alone pension.
If there is, Smith said the issue will go to a referendum.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2023.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press