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Smith says Alberta’s CPP exit campaign to continue despite questions over key number

EDMONTON — Premier Danielle Smith says Alberta will continue its $7.5-million pension-exit advertising and survey campaign, despite acknowledging the key dollar figure is disputed and likely headed to court.

Smith says her government stands by its assertion that Alberta deserves $334 billion if it leaves the Canada Pension Plan — a figure that represents more than half of all CPP assets.

Smith says the number stands because it’s the only number out there.

“We’ve asked the federal government to give us their interpretation. They declined,” Smith told reporters in Calgary on Thursday.

“We’ve asked the CPP Investment Board to give us their interpretation, it declined. 

“So maybe the next step is to go to court to see if the court supports our interpretation.” 

Smith reiterated comments she made a day earlier in Edmonton that until that transfer number is nailed down, she will not ask Albertans to vote in a referendum on leaving the CPP.

“We will have a firm number before we go into a referendum,” Smith said.

“Albertans want to know what the number will be.

“The amount of the asset transferred will then determine how much we can reduce premiums or it will determine how much we can increase benefits.”

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said it’s time for Smith’s government to stop altogether with its yo-yo messaging.

“Two days ago, the premier and I think (pension engagement panel chairman) Jim Dinning were completely confident that the ($334-billion) number was a good number,” Notley told reporters Thursday in Calgary.

“Yesterday, they started to show what all the rest of us know, which is that it’s a ridiculous number. 

“Today it’s back to being a good number.”

Notley added, “At the end of the day, what is happening is Albertans’ money is being spent in a campaign full of misinformation and lies in order to persuade Albertans to let Danielle Smith and the UCP (government) have access to their retirement savings.”

For the past month, Smith’s government has been expounding in ads and an online survey the benefits that could come to Albertans with a $334-billion transfer from the CPP. That would include lower premiums, higher pensions and perhaps thousands of dollars in bonus payments to seniors.

Economists and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board say the amount Alberta would get would be, at best, half that amount and likely lower.

The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board pegs Alberta’s share of the CPP at 16 per cent. 

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe, whose research on this topic has been cited by Dinning, puts the figure at about 20 per cent.

Alberta represents about 15 per cent of the people who contribute to CPP.

The advertising campaign and the online survey have come under fire from the NDP, the Canada Pension Plan board and from some callers on Dinning’s two recent telephone town halls.

They note the survey doesn’t ask Albertans if they want to leave the CPP, but instead only asks them how they would like an Alberta plan structured.

The advertising trumpets the benefits of a government-commissioned report from analyst LifeWorks — which computed the $334-billion figure — but avoids mentioning the potential risks and downsides also flagged by LifeWorks.

Smith is slated to get a report from Dinning next spring on what Albertans think about a provincial pension plan.

She is then tentatively slated to make a decision on whether there is enough public interest in an Alberta pension plan to take it to referendum, with that vote possibly coming in 2025. 

In recent days, the issue has garnered national attention.

On Wednesday, federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland agreed to convene a meeting with provincial and territorial finance ministers to discuss Alberta’s CPP-exit proposal.

The decision came after Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy called for a meeting in a letter to Freeland, saying Alberta’s withdrawal could cause “serious harm over the long term to working people and retirees in Ontario and across Canada.”

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government will fight to retain the stability and integrity of the CPP, while Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre encouraged Albertans to stay in the federal nest-egg fund.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press