How to Save the CPP from Danielle Smith and the UCP
Public Interest Alberta hosted a Nov. 23 town hall on how to stymie the premier's plans to blow up the Canadian Pension Plan, featuring a journalist, economist and labour organizer.
While Alberta Premier Danielle Smith puts out all the stops to convince Albertans that withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) is a good idea, an advocacy group dedicated to the common good held a forum on the risks of leaving the national plan.
After releasing a preposterous report conducted by LifeWorks under former premier Jason Kenney that concluded an Alberta Pension Plan (APP) would be entitled to more than half the CPP’s assets, Smith has taken a threefold approach to forging a consensus for her pension gamble in advance of an expected referendum.
She launched a $7.5-million partisan ad campaign to tell Albertans that an APP would without a doubt decrease their premiums and increase their payouts, a laughable survey that asks citizens what they would do with all their savings from an APP, and a panel led by former provincial treasurer Jim Dinning that has been conducting telephone town halls across the province.
In response to this onslaught clearly designed to push public opinion away from the CPP, the Edmonton-based advocacy organization Public Interest Alberta (PIA) hosted its own, in-person town hall on Nov. 23.
“We're not going to do the government’s style tonight,” PIA executive director Bradley Lafortune told a crowd of more than 200 packed into the gymnasium at the Ukrainian Centre1 at the event’s outset. “We're here to listen to you. We're here to have a real conversation — a good, old fashioned town hall.”
Former Edmonton Journal political columnist Sheila Pratt, progressive economist Bob Ascah and Canadian Labour Congress Prairies and North regional director Deanna Ogle took turns speaking about the CPP’s merits and the dangers of leaving it, followed by questions and comments from the audience.
The NDP, which has been hosting its own, partisan town halls on the CPP, had two MLAs in attendance — Janis Irwin (Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood) and Sarah Hoffman (Edmonton-Glenora).
The CPP, Pratt noted, was established in 1965 to provide some measure of economic security to retired people while alleviating poverty.
In this day of mass precarity, having a public pension plan is of heightened importance, given the scarcity of jobs offering pension plans of their own.
Defined-benefit pension plans have “almost disappeared,” Pratt said, whereas defined-contribution plans, which are less uncommon, are “not as strong as they ought to be.”
“This makes it a terrible time to weaken the CPP for Albertans and for all Canadians,” she said.
Pratt aptly characterized Smith’s approach to forging a consensus in favour of an APP:
We all know what's really [going] on here is a one-sided public relations campaign — a UCP sales job based on faulty and incomplete data, a constant downplaying of the risks of leaving the CPP, and playing up mythical benefits that may or may not be there if we had an Alberta plan.
Smith’s “rosy promise of lower premiums and higher benefits” can only be brought to fruition if Alberta is actually entitled to as much of the CPP as the LifeWorks report claims, Pratt added. If that’s the case, Alberta would be destroying the CPP by leaving.
She noted a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Smith’s “politics of grievance.”
“Alberta is at one time the richest province with the highest incomes and the most victimized and hard done by, constantly set upon by Ottawa, unable to defend itself,” Pratt said.
Amplifying this sense of grievance allows Smith to distract from the very real issues the province is facing, such as the impending energy transition, difficulty retaining health-care workers and homelessness, and Smith’s complete lack of a coherent plan to address them.
Ascah, who directed the Institute for Public Economics from 2009 to 2013 and is a research fellow at the Parkland Institute, provided a broad historical overview of Alberta’s flirtation with leaving the CPP.
While Quebec was never a member of the CPP, opting instead to go it alone when it was formed, no province has ever left the plan after paying into it.
Ascah situated the origins of an APP in the separatist Western Canadian Concept, which sought to create an independent state out of all the provinces west of Ontario and the Yukon and Northwest Territories, which at the time included Nunavut, in response to Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s hated National Energy Policy.
One of the party’s major policy proposals in Alberta was to leave the CPP and create an APP, Ascah explained.
Gordon Kesler was elected as the party’s first MLA in the Alberta Legislature in a 1982 by-election. In the general election later that year, Kesler lost his seat but the party secured about 12% of the popular vote.
The idea of an APP laid largely dormant until it was resurrected in 2001 by the infamous “Firewall Letter,” signed by future prime minister Stephen Harper, Stockwell Day advisor Ken Boessenkool, anti-tax agitator Andrew Crooks, and Calgary School ghouls Tom Flanagan, Ted Morton and Reiner Knopff.
The letter outlined an “Alberta Agenda” it urged Premier Ralph Klein to adopt to insulate the province from what its signatories regarded as an overbearing federal government.
The first item on the agenda was to withdraw from the CPP and create an APP “offering the same benefits at lower cost.” “If Quebec can do it, why not Alberta?” the authors wrote.
While Harper went on to become prime minister and ignore the contents of the letter he co-authored, Kenney had to deal with its consequences once he left federal politics in 2016 to enter Alberta politics.
Ascah noted that Kenney didn’t explicitly campaign on the pension issue in his victorious 2019 election campaign, but he did harp nonstop on the purported injustices of confederation, promising to establish a Fair Deal Panel to do what the Firewall Letter sought to do.
When the Fair Deal Panel returned in early 2020, it once again brought the idea of an APP back from the dead, but it laid stillborn until Danielle Smith was securely re-elected in May 2023.
Ascah noted how the “Alberta First” crowd Smith courted to win the UCP leadership race has a worldview fundamentally at odds with the communitarian spirit of the CPP, which theoretically gives Canadians across the nation access to the same standard of retirement, regardless of their province’s demographic makeup.
“The people pushing this [withdrawal] are highly individualistic,” Ascah said. “They're taking a very parochial view to get a maximum benefit right now. So [they] say, ‘What's in it for me now?’”
Since Ogle works for the CLC, whose affiliates represent three million workers across Canada, she has solid benefits, including a pension plan.
But in previous service sector jobs she worked in throughout her life, the CPP was the only means through which she was able to save for the future.
“The CPP is our collective wealth. The CPP is the deferred wages of workers,” said Ogle.
At a time when the cost of living is consistently increasing, it’s necessary to bolster the CPP to keep pace with inflation, rather than tear it down.
Ogle harkened back to the CLC’s campaign to enhance the CPP in 2014, which bore fruit when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reached an agreement in October 2016 with the majority of provinces to return the age of retirement to 65 from 67, and incrementally increase pension payouts by 50% from 2019 to 2026.
“It's important to remind ourselves of these victories as we brace for another fight,” said Ogle.
She said the CLC’s past experience shows that pensions can be saved through a combination of in-person town halls, putting pressure on politicians and to keep supporters up to date through online organizing.
Pensions aren’t a partisan issue, Ogle emphasized. Regardless of their political stripes, retirees want economic security.
“There's an opportunity here for conversations with unlikely allies who maybe we wouldn't have had points of agreement with before,” she said.
The questions and comments portion of the town hall showed that the panelists weren’t simply preaching to the choir, buttressing Ogle’s argument that protecting pensions means building alliances with those you often disagree with. But the calibre of some questions demonstrated the limits of this approach.
One person demanded to know whether the Alberta NDP was taking its marching orders from “the coalition in Ottawa,” meaning the informal agreement between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — a favourite of Smith’s election talking points — before complaining that the CPP’s investment terms include criteria on human rights, climate change and executive compensation.
As I was on my way out, one attendee mentioned the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation’s “debt clock,” which as you might imagine is constantly increasing.
Another attendee asked if the panelists were aware of any planned provisions around labour mobility for an APP, especially considering how many people have historically come and gone from Alberta for work.
Pratt noted that at the government’s pension town halls she’s attended, that question has been repeatedly raised, but the government’s answers have been vague and without specifics.
Ascah noted that an APP would have to enter agreements with other countries — the CPP and Quebec Pension Plan each have dozens of such agreements.
Any public pension plan, he said, must ensure “the portability and the interoperability of these plans for retirement security, which we all depend on.”
“These are long negotiations, and they take years and years and years,” Ascah added.
The good Ukrainian Centre, not the one with a bust of Roman Shukhevych — that’s the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex.