‘If Quebec can do it, why not Alberta?’: Kenney says ‘compelling case’ can be made for provincial pension plan

Canada World

It’s an idea from an older era suddenly receiving renewed attention: what if Alberta withdrew from the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) in favour of a provincially-run alternative?

You can trace debate around that idea back to 1991, when a fresh-faced Stephen Harper, then a member of the Reform Party, co-authored what has become known as the “firewall letter” with conservative activist Tom Flanagan and former Progressive Conservative cabinet member Ted Morton, among others.

“Create an Alberta Pension Plan offering the same benefits at lower cost while giving Alberta control over the investment fund,” the document reads. “Legislation setting up the Canada Pension Plan permits a province to run its own plan, as Quebec has done from the beginning. If Quebec can do it, why not Alberta?”

Premier Jason Kenney appears to agree with that sentiment. As part of a Facebook Live video stream held a week ago, Kenney responded to a question on that subject.

“I can tell you that will be one of the issues studied by the panel I will be appointing to consult with Albertans on fighting for a fair deal in Canada,” Kenney said in the live stream, referring to his plan to gather an expert panel focused on western aggravations with Confederation.

“I believe a compelling case can be made for such a shift [away from the CPP].”

We haven’t made any decision. But it’s one of the ideas people will be presenting to our panel on fairness within the Confederation.– Alberta Premier Jason Kenney

But what would that shift look like, and what sort of impact would it have financially on Albertans’ pensions — and those held nationwide?

An eye on Quebec

Much like western separation itself, attention is naturally drawn to the closest case study in Quebec.

As part of the CPP statute, provinces are allowed to opt out as long as they provide a program that offers similar retirement and supplementary benefits.

Standing alone from the rest of Canada, Quebec has operated its own pension plan since 1966.

Quebec’s pension fund manager — the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec — posted a modest return of 6.1 per cent in the first half of 2019, though it placed blame on that performance due to its investment in plummeting shares of SNC-Lavalin Inc.

Quebec’s pension fund manager — the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec — has a sizable stake in SNC-Lavalin. When stocks for the engineering firm plummeted earlier in 2019, so did returns for Caisse. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

And though it may seem obvious to compare a potential Alberta pension to Quebec, University of Calgary economics professor Kenneth McKenzie said the two weren’t necessarily very comparable.

One of the key issues here is we would be effectively leaving the CPP having been part of it for many years since it was established. Quebec was never part of the CPP. There are many issues that we’d have to deal with in terms of leaving an existing plan that we’ve been a part of for years.– Kenneth McKenzie, University of Calgary economics professor

“One of the key issues here is we would be effectively leaving the CPP having been part of it for many years since it was established. Quebec was never part of the CPP,” he said. “There are many issues that we’d have to deal with in terms of leaving an existing plan that we’ve been a part of for years.”

The CPP, which is operated by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, posted an 8.9 per cent net return for its most recent financial year. The CPP fund had $400.6 billion in assets as of June 30, up from $366.6 billion in the previous year. The investment board declined to comment.

Part of the challenge of leaving the CPP, McKenzie said, is the existence of the CPP fund, which Alberta has contributed to from the start.

“It’s a partially-funded plan, in the sense that it has a pay-as-you-go feature. Incoming premiums [are] paid by people working, paid out to people who are retired,” he said. “What share of the existing CPP fund would be transferred to Alberta?

“It’s not as easy as saying, ‘Oh, we’ll do it on our own.’ There would have to be a negotiation with the federal government in terms of how to allocate the fund.”

As Kenney sees it, Albertans are paying more than their fair share, referring to the province’s share of the working age population compared with its number of retirees drawing on pension funds. 

“Let me just say, with the youngest population in Canada, we are by far the largest net contributors to the CPP,” he said.

But McKenzie said that estimation was misleading.

“No matter where you live in Canada, if you earn the same income, you pay exactly the same amount into the CPP, and you get the same benefits when you retire,” he said. “That’s independent of where you live in Canada.”

“But that’s exactly what we would expect to happen, because we have a population that is, on average, a little bit younger than everybody else. So that is not a transfer out of Alberta to the rest of Canada, and I think that is the impression that people have.”

But were it to happen, what would a post-CPP Alberta look like? In Kenney’s vision, the road would lead to the government-owned Alberta Investment Management Corp., or AIMCo.

Centralized pensions

During the Facebook Live, Kenney estimated there are billions of dollars of Albertan premiums under management by the CPP investment board. “If, in principle, we could transfer those assets to be managed securely by AIMCo, that would help AIMCo to be a stronger asset manager.”

In Kenney’s estimation, with that approximate figure under the management of the Crown corporation, AIMCo would be able to participate in larger deals and invest in a larger class of assets to diversify its investment portfolio.

However, other risks would emerge to complicate the picture. As a part of the CPP, Canadians have their pensions spread out across a number of different industries and economies. 

Under a provincial pension system, the funds would be pooled across a much smaller population.

“When you pool over a smaller population, risks go up. [We know] about the economic shocks that hit Alberta, while right now that is smoothed out across the country,” McKenzie said.

While a Alberta-based pension might see slightly lower premiums thanks to its lower population, McKenzie said, it would also run the risk of what is known as fiscally-induced migration.

“People would begin to look at [Alberta] to say, ‘Oh, it has higher rates,'” he said. “Or maybe it would be the other way around. You get people moving for reasons other than productivity.”

And though Kenney has promised any move from the CPP to a provincial pension would be done only after Albertans had been consulted, that wasn’t the case for the province’s nurses, teachers and workers’ compensation employees when it was announced as part of the budget that their pension plans were to be transferred to AIMCo.

AIMCo already administers more than $100 billion in government pensions and other funds, and approximately $17 billion in assets as part of the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund.

Of course, were Albertans’ billions in pensions to be transferred to AIMCo, they would be subject to the rates of returns of that company. AIMCo funds achieved a net return of 2.3 per cent in 2018, down from 9.3 per cent a year prior.

A CBC News investigation published in July also revealed that AIMCo had shares worth a total of about $4.8 million as of March 31, in both GEO Group and CoreCivic, two companies linked to for-profit prison companies, including one linked to controversial migrant detention centres in the United States.

AIMCo no longer holds shares in those two companies, a representative said in an email to CBC News.

Temptation to support provincial initiatives

Were AIMCo to take over management of Albertan pensions, there would also be the chance that the Crown corporation would use the funds to support provincial initiatives.

“I would argue that that is not something Alberta should do. The problem is there is a temptation to do that — when you’re running your own provincial fund, maybe you’re going to invest it in Alberta companies,” McKenzie said. “That would be a huge mistake. Any board in charge of Alberta funds should be modelled after the federal CPP fund, which is arm’s-length from the rest of government.

“But as soon as you bring these things into the province, I think there’s a bigger chance it will be politicized. I think that’s also a danger. I’m not saying that will happen, and I think there are safeguards they could put in place.”

Kenney has promised to convene the panel focused on Albertans’ grievances by the end of this year.

“We haven’t made any decision,” Kenney said. “But it’s one of the ideas people will be presenting to our panel on fairness within the Confederation.”

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