Premier Danielle Smith’s government has rejected a proposal that would have compelled it to respect the results of a referendum on whether Alberta should quit the Canada Pension Plan.
On Dec. 6, the United Conservative Party’s majority government voted down an opposition amendment to Bill 2 — the Alberta Pension Protection Act — by the New Democratic Party that would have forced the government to abide by the results of such a plebiscite.
Finance Minister Nate Horner said the goal of Bill 2 is to provide a process for a referendum while not tying the hands of future governments, dismissing the NDP amendment as “vague, confusing and repetitive.”
“Our government will respect whatever choice Albertans make in a referendum whether that be a yes or no. I know some Albertans have concerns about an Alberta pension plan, but I want to assure them that their pension is safe, full stop.”
The referendum requirement is the centrepiece of the bill, which was introduced last month by Horner. While the bill compels that a referendum be held, it also says the government has the option, once it calls the plebiscite, to decide whether it will be legally bound to accept and act on the result.
NDP finance critic Shannon Phillip introduced the amendment, saying Albertans need to see in writing that their referendum wishes will be followed. “We are going to make sure that when Albertans say no to this terrible idea [in a referendum] that the government cannot just turn around and do it anyway.”
The bill also stated that any money transferred over from the CPP would have to be invested in an Alberta pension plan, but it doesn’t specify what happens to income generated from the plan once it’s up and running. The NDP proposed another amendment to mandate that any income generated from a future Alberta plan goes to the plan in order to avoid the risk of that money being spent on political pet projects.
NDP house leader Christina Gray said the amendment would close a “loophole” that could put pension funds at risk. Horner told the house this won’t happen. “I’ve been clear [that] assets transferred from the CPP to an Alberta pension plan and future contributions of employers and employees would solely be used to set up and operate a provincial pension plan.”
That amendment was also voted down by the governing majority. The votes came at the stage of debate known as committee of the whole — the last stage before the bill is discussed and voted on at third and final reading. The NDP said it will vote against the bill no matter its final form, but has been introducing amendments to attempt to “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” in the words of Phillips.
While the NDP had hinted it may filibuster the debate, government house leader Joseph Schow derailed any filibuster before it began, introducing and passing a motion to put a one-hour time limit on any future debate over the amendments.
The NDP had previously tried and failed to thwart the bill. An amendment at second reading to park the bill, on grounds it won’t keep Albertans’ pensions safe, was voted down by the UCP majority. On Tuesday, the NDP proposed amendments to clarify the rules, discussion and ballot question surrounding any referendum, but they were also defeated by the UCP majority.
The pension debate has been roiling for more than two months after Smith called in September for consultations based on a government-commissioned report that concluded Alberta deserves 53 per cent of the entire CPP fund and could provide lower contribution costs and bigger benefits if it split off on its own.
Critics have questioned the 53 per cent calculation as wildly overblown and, even if accurate, not something the other provinces or federal government would allow Alberta to inherit. The federal government has warned of the dangers to the stability of the CPP if Alberta left. Canada’s chief actuary has been tasked by the feds to make its own calculation on what Alberta is owed.
The NDP says the vast majority of Albertans are making clear their desire to stay in the CPP through thousands of submissions to their caucus and hundreds attending in-person town halls the party has hosted on the topic. Smith’s government has held five telephone town halls to hear from Albertans. It promised to host in-person town halls in December but hasn’t followed through on that commitment and has declined to say why.