At least they didn’t try to use COVID-19 as an excuse. That would have been off-the-charts cynical for this premier and her government.
However, they don’t seem to have any excuse for why their “Engaging with Albertans on a Potential Provincial Pension Plan” doesn’t involve any actual in-person conversations with those very same Albertans. Absent an excuse, the government is instead trying to convince us that five telephone town halls (each lasting only 90 minutes) passes for sufficient engagement on this hugely important issue.
It is a rather cynical approach from a premier who made in-person town hall meetings such a cornerstone of her leadership campaign. It’s a rather cynical approach from a government that held 10 in-person town hall meetings (“large” town halls, according to the report) across Alberta (plus 15 additional meetings hosted by various MLAs) for the Fair Deal Panel. The issue of rural crime warranted seven separate in-person town hall meetings with the justice minister.
Not every issue requires the government to host in-person consultations across the province. But if we’re not going to do it for an issue such as leaving the Canada Pension Plan, it’s hard to see why town halls should even exist as an option in the first place.
It’s not just that the pension matter is of the utmost importance, but also that the government continues to maintain that it is interested in hearing from Albertans. The evidence is mounting, however, that its interest is less about listening and more about convincing.
The government’s multimillion-dollar ad campaign, which is ostensibly about informing Albertans about this whole process, goes out of its way to talk up the benefits of an Alberta pension plan. The government’s online survey doesn’t even ask the question about whether we should leave the CPP. Rather, it touts those same purported benefits and asks how a potential Alberta plan should be administered.
Of course, these rosy assumptions all stem from that government-commissioned report that concludes Alberta would be entitled to more than half of the CPP’s current assets. It’s clear that the government has no interest in gathering or presenting any other perspectives or alternative possible scenarios about what Alberta’s exit from the CPP might look like.
These are not the actions of a government that is genuinely seeking guidance from Albertans. These seem much more like the actions of a government looking to win over the public on this issue.
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The early evidence suggests those efforts are not succeeding. A poll released earlier this month shows more than half of Albertans still think leaving the CPP is a bad idea. No doubt many of those who harbour concerns or outright opposition to leaving the CPP would make their voices heard at public town hall meetings. That might explain the government’s aversion to such meetings.
It’s also unfortunate to see respected former finance minister Jim Dinning lend his reputation and credibility to this exercise by agreeing to chair this engagement panel. The government’s news release last week quoted Dinning as saying, “For something this big, Albertans deserve the benefit of a rational, adult conversation.”
We certainly do. It’s just unfortunate that we’re not getting that.
We’ve got a single report based on questionable assumptions and a government now taking that report as gospel, and likely overselling the benefits — while also totally downplaying any potential risks — of leaving the CPP. And this is all being presented as objective information to help us make up our minds.
It’s certainly possible that Alberta could be better off with its own pension plan. It also makes sense that the issue be decided in a referendum, as the government has committed to doing. But they need to stop pretending that they haven’t taken a side here. It’s insulting to Albertans and does a huge disservice to a very serious matter.
“Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” airs weekdays from 12:30 to 3 p.m. on QR Calgary