EDMONTON — 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.
The United Conservative government used its majority in the house Wednesday to vote down an Opposition NDP amendment to Bill 2 — the Alberta Pension Protection Act — that would have forced the government to abide by the results of such a plebiscite.
Finance Minister Nate Horner has said the goal of Bill 2 is to provide a process for a referendum while not tying the hands of future governments.
On Wednesday, Horner dismissed the NDP amendment as “vague, confusing and repetitive.”
He told the house, “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, introduced last month by Horner.
But while the bill compels 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,” said Phillips.
The bill also states that any money transferred over from the CPP would have to be invested in an Alberta pension plan.
But the bill is silent on what happens to income generated from the Alberta plan once it is up and running.
The NDP proposed another amendment to mandate that any income generated from a future Alberta pension plan go to the plan in order to avoid the risk of that money being frittered away on political pet projects.
NDP house leader Christina Gray said the amendment would close a “loophole” that could put pension funds at risk, but Horner told the house this will not 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,” Horner said.
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 had said it will vote against the bill no matter its final form, but has been introducing amendments, in the words of Phillips, to attempt to “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
The NDP had hinted it may filibuster the debate Wednesday, which involves scores of members speaking for hours on the amendments around the clock to hold up passage of the bill in order to draw attention to its shortcomings.
Government house leader Joseph Schow derailed any filibuster before it began Wednesday afternoon, 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 the grounds it won’t keep Albertans’ pensions safe was voted down by the United Conservative 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 of 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 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to make its calculation on what Alberta is owed.
The legislature debate to date over the bill has been punctuated by insults and ad hominem attacks.
On Nov. 29, Phillips dismissed the pension opt-out as a “fever dream” concocted by “the coterie of self-dealing charlatans surrounding and advising the premier.”
UCP backbencher Jason Stephan, on Nov. 23, called the bill “super-duper,” the NDP “weak and hypocritical,” and said it’s time Alberta stops being the sucker-chumps of Confederation.
“Albertans are seeing a pattern of abuse and hostility from a joke of a prime minister who hates Alberta and has demonstrated that he will not hesitate to leverage the terms of a rigged partnership for his own selfish political gain,” said Stephan.
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 NDP in-person town halls on the topic.
Smith’s government has held five telephone town halls to hear from Albertans. It promised there would be in-person town halls in December but did not follow through on that commitment and has declined to say why.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2023.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press