June 12th, 2024

Alberta NDP leader says government misinformation on CPP tainting feedback process

By Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press on October 24, 2023.

EDMONTON – Alberta’s Opposition leader says the province’s decision to launch a slanted misinformation campaign on whether it should dump the Canada Pension Plan is making life difficult for the man in charge of gathering public feedback on it.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley says the government’s fudged numbers and skewed online survey, along with sparse detail on what an Alberta pension plan will look like, means Jim Dinning is forced to perform “tortured rhetorical acrobatics” when responding to pointed questions.

“I was quite shocked, actually, to listen to (Dinning) on (the podcast) West of Centre this weekend engage in what seemed to me to be one of the most tortured rhetorical acrobatics to justify consulting with Albertans before the true assets of an Alberta pension plan were actually established,” said Notley.

“They know it’s hard to conceal this fundamental problem when one live human being after another comes to the mic to say, “˜I don’t believe your numbers. They’re wrong.'”

Notley’s comments, in a virtual speech to the Public Affairs Association of Canada, were made Tuesday afternoon, just hours before Dinning’s panel holding its second telephone town-hall discussion to hear public concerns and comments on Alberta leaving the CPP.

Notley said the government’s $7.5-million advertising and engagement process on an Alberta pension plan is not an honest search for input but a sales pitch built on one-sided arguments, cherry-picked facts and absurdly optimistic benefit projections that amount to a “carnival barker pitch.”

Dinning’s comments were aired last Friday on CBC’s West of Centre podcast.

On the show, Dinning sparred with host Kathleen Petty before declining twice to answer why Albertans could ultimately be asked to vote in a referendum on whether to leave the CPP without details being hashed out first between governments.

“If you want to ask the minister of finance or the premier that question, you’re welcome to do so. We’re dealing with the facts as we’ve got them today,” Dinning said. “As Albertans ask for more facts, and we can get them, we’ll put them up on our website.”

Dinning also sparred with Petty before twice declining to say whether his panel has the latitude to recommend to Premier Danielle Smith’s government at the end of the feedback process that it should nail down figures before holding a referendum.

“We have not prejudged what we’re going to advise the government,” said Dinning.

“We are all adult Albertans, and we will base our recommendations on what we heard from Albertans.”

Dinning’s panel is tasked with gaining public feedback on an Alberta pension plan and make a recommendation to Smith in May on whether there is enough public interest to warrant taking the issue to a referendum, likely in 2025.

Smith’s United Conservative government says Albertans are paying disproportionately into CPP and would get a better deal going it alone.

The Dinning panel has been directed to centre the debate around a government commissioned third-party report by the consultant LifeWorks.

LifeWorks estimates Alberta is owed more than half the CPP assets, about $334 billion, should it go it alone and, with that number, could deliver higher benefits and lower premiums.

That number is disputed by other economists and by the Canada Pension Plan investment board, which estimates Alberta, with 15 per cent of the CPP population, is owed about 16 per cent of the CPP assets.

Government online advertising linked to the Dinning panel and an online public opinion survey have been criticized for focusing solely on the $334-billion figure and all the benefits Albertans could accrue from it, including potential one-time payments for retirees.

The LifeWorks report itself states there are risks to going it alone tied to how much money the province gets from the CPP, how the province’s economy and demographics shift over time and how well the Alberta pension plan performs. Those risks, cited on page 12 of the LifeWorks report, are not mentioned in the government advertising.

The government survey does not ask Albertans if they want to leave the CPP but asks details on how they would like an Alberta plan to be structured.

Also, the mandate of Dinning’s panel, displayed on the government website, does not specify it consult with Albertans and make a recommendation on leaving the CPP. Instead, it asks the panel to consult and then “make recommendations for the Alberta government’s consideration on topics of importance to Albertans when considering an (Alberta pension plan).”

The debate has also raised concerns whether the panel is the impartial referee or is push-polling for the province.

Dinning told Petty, “We are not pompom-wearing cheerleaders or advocates for the Alberta pension plan. We are asking Albertans what they think.”

Dinning also took a different tack on the government survey from comments he made just days earlier in the panel’s first telephone town hall.

In that Oct. 16 town hall, Dinning defended the survey for not asking whether Albertans wanted to leave the CPP, saying such a question would be premature at this stage of the debate.

Four days later, when asked by Petty if he has concerns with the fairness of the survey, Dinning responded: “That is the approach the government took with their survey.

“Our questions are different. Our questions are open-ended.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2023.

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