There was little support for meddling with Canadian pensions in a room packed with seniors Friday.
It was standing-room-only at Golden Circle Senior Resource Centre where about 225 people gathered for the latest in a series of NDP town halls on the proposed Alberta Pension Plan rolling into communities.
NDP Opposition leader Rachel Notley, who arrived to enthusiastic applause, quickly took the temperature of the room asking how many wanted to stay in the Canada Pension Plan. Almost all hands went up.
Asked who supported an APP, about 20 hands were raised most of them in a group standing together in a corner of the Golden Circle meeting room.
Some of those who asked questions were deeply skeptical of the province’s contention that a made-in-Alberta plan would provide better benefits with lower premiums.
A man who worked in human resources and had much experience with pension plans called the province’s estimate it could withdraw $334 billion or 53 per cent of the CPP to set up an Alberta plan a “pipe dream.”
In his professional life it was drummed into executives that risk must be minimized as much as possible by spreading it across a large group and mitigating where possible, he said.
“I would call that (APP) high risk and I don’t want any part of it.”
Another speaker pointed out the CPP was built with the contributions of those like many in the room.
“We put it in for our parents and generations before us, that’s just how this thing is going to cycle. And if we start thinking that the next generation doesn’t have to pay into it or tries something different with so much more risk then you’ve really not done a service to the people in this room,” he said.
Another questioned the Alberta government’s fiscal track record, pointing out former premier Peter Lougheed left $12 billion in the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, which decades later is only at $18 billion.
“Well $12 billion then is $30 billion today, so we’ve lost money with inflation on this. So, I don’t really trust Alberta sometimes on this.”
One woman called CPP one of the best-managed pension plans in the world. “There is absolutely no reason for us to leave.”
She finished by saying “I’m a Canadian first …” the rest of her comment drowned out by some of the loudest applause of the afternoon.
One woman questioned why the provincial government was pursuing an APP at all when previous studies had shown it was non-starter.
“What is in it for the government? Why do they keep pushing?” she said, pointing out it the government studied and rejected a provincial pension plan in 2003.
Edmonton-Millwoods MLA Christina Gray, who was acting as moderator, explained that an independent committee that looked into an Alberta pension in 2003 determined it was unfeasible.
Not all were opposed to Alberta going it alone.
One woman said the future of the CPP is “very bleak” because the federal government has been using it as collateral and “they’ve been spending like drunken sailors. We need to get out of the CPP while there is still pension money there.”
Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan, who received his own applause when introduced earlier, argued an Alberta pension would have lower premiums meaning more take-home pay for Albertans.
CPP payroll costs have gone up about 40 per cent since 2019 under the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he said.
“From an affordability perspective, if we can give workers hundreds of dollars a year, or perhaps more than a thousand, every year in perpetuity while they’re working, that would dramatically help with affordability challenges.”
Stephan added that Alberta employers disproportionately contribute to CPP and its rising premiums act as a disincentive to hiring more workers.
“If we can reduce payroll costs we can create a game-changing competitive advantage for Alberta, similar to reducing the corporate income tax to the lowest in Canada.”
After every five or six people spoke or asked questions, Notley answered and laid out the reasons the NDP remain strongly opposed to the government’s pension proposal.
Notley said there is no chance Alberta will get $334 billion in Canada pension cash and no one knows what the actual number will be, likely determined after years if litigation.
Dumping the national plan would also dramatically increase the risk to pensions. Changes to the Canada Pension Plan require a level of support from the provinces, which is why it has changed little since the 1960s.
“What that does is that kind of hedges against different, volatile political situations across the country.”
An Alberta plan would be at the whims of the government in power.
“Those decisions are just made by the government that is in power at that time, which, I would argue, creates a tremendous amount of greater volatility and greater insecurity.”
Notley expressed her concern that the pension legislation as proposed does not require a binding referendum on the issue, meaning the province could ignore the results. The NDP have already proposed an amendment making it a binding referendum.
A supporter of a provincial plan pointed to the example of Quebec, which chose to go at it alone in the 1960s.
Notley said premiums in Quebec are higher and benefits lower than CPP now because of changing demographics and the provincial economy.
The next NDP town hall is in Ardrossan on Dec. 9, followed by stops in Edmonton and Calgary.
The provincial government is still considering holding its own in-person town hall events.