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Taxes, pension up for debate as Alberta legislature members prepare for fall sitting

EDMONTON — A pitched battle expected on the government’s proposal to quit the Canada Pension Plan.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks during a news conference in Calgary on Friday, October 13, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

EDMONTON — Alberta politicians return Monday to the legislature for the first sitting since the May election, with a pitched battle expected on the government’s proposal to quit the Canada Pension Plan.

Premier Danielle Smith’s government is set to table legislation spelling out that a referendum must be held before Alberta could leave the CPP and set up its own plan.

The Opposition NDP promises to fight the government’s pension campaign, which it says is replete with false claims and bad math on something a majority of Albertans have already rejected.

Government house leader Joseph Schow said there will be between seven and nine bills in the sitting, which is set to run until early December.

Smith’s United Conservative Party promised legislation in the election on Albertans having a direct say on any future tax hikes.

“What you’re going to see is us protecting Albertans’ pocketbooks,” Schow said Friday in an interview.

“You will see a bill about taxpayer protection that will ensure any future corporate or personal income taxes that are introduced have to go through a referendum."

Schow said there will also be a bill to give the government tools to go after drug manufacturers in its fight against the opioid epidemic.

“It’s going to help us recover costs that the government has incurred because of the opioid crisis,” said Schow.

“From a humanistic standpoint, we have family members who ended up addicted to opioids and it’s incumbent upon us to address this and be there for them.”

Smith’s government also promised during the election to introduce legislation forcing people with severe drug addiction into treatment if family members, doctors or police convince a judge it is the best option.

Schow acknowledged work is ongoing on the legislation and it will not be introduced in this sitting.

Monday is to feature the speech from the throne, which gives a broad outline of government goals and priorities.

The NDP on Friday released its own alternative throne speech. 

The speech calls for the government to address bread-and-butter issues for Albertans, such as high auto insurance, high electricity costs, soaring tuition costs and lack of housing.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said they will also push the United Conservative government to abandon its campaign to have Albertans quit the Canada Pension Plan.

Smith has said Alberta deserves $334 billion — more than half the assets of the Canada Pension Plan — and can deliver much higher benefits and lower premiums if it ran its own plan.

Her government is spending $7.5 million on an ad campaign and engagement process to determine what Albertans think of going it alone, with the possibility of holding a referendum on it by 2025 should enough Albertans express an interest.

That timeline was thrown into doubt this week when Smith promised Albertans will get to see a definitive number on how much Alberta will get if it left the CPP before any referendum is held.

Smith said she wants to see numbers from the federal government and CPP Investment Board, but says the whole matter may have to be hashed out in court — a process that could take years. 

The board estimates Alberta, with 15 per cent of Canadians in the CPP, is in line to get 16 per cent of CPP assets.

Notley’s NDP lost the May election but won 38 seats in the 87-seat legislature, making it the largest official Opposition in provincial history.

Notley declined to be more specific on the pension fight and wouldn’t say if her caucus would try to hold up passage of the pension bill by prolonging legislature debate in a filibuster.

Her caucus is hosting town halls on the issue and running its own survey. It says more than 32,000 Albertans have responded, 90 per cent of whom say they don’t want to leave the CPP.

“We are going to do everything at our disposal to stop every single solitary step towards Danielle Smith getting her hands onto the pensions and the retirement security of the millions of Albertans who have worked their whole life to create their retirement security,” Notley said.

The government’s advertising campaign and online survey have come under fire from the NDP, the Canada Pension Plan board and from some callers on two recent telephone town halls.

They note the survey doesn't ask Albertans if they want to leave the CPP, but instead only asks them how they would like a provincial plan structured.

The advertising trumpets the benefits of a government-commissioned report from analyst LifeWorks — which computed the $334-billion figure — but avoids mentioning the potential risks and downsides also flagged by LifeWorks. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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