As the province’s strategy to fight back against Ottawa moves into a new phase, Alberta businesses certainly don’t seem to believe the Fair Deal panel’s core planks will help their companies.
In fact, a new poll of business operators conducted by the Alberta Chambers of Commerce found that a majority believe withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and establishing a provincial program will hurt their companies over the next three to five year will harm.
Likewise, the ideas of establishing a provincial police force and creating a provincial revenue agency to collect all taxes within Alberta are seen as more detrimental than helpful to their businesses.
More broadly, the survey indicates that opinions have changed over the past two years on suggestions the panel made about how Alberta can “ensure it has a strong voice in Confederation.”
“There was definitely a noticeable shift from 2020,” said Jason Leslie, chief operating officer of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce.
The concept of withdrawing from CPP, creating an Alberta Police Service and establishing a new Alberta Revenue Agency was explored by the Fair Deal Panel. It was put together three years ago by then-premier Jason Kenney as tensions rose with Ottawa over issues such as equalization.
These three proposals were included in new mandate letters sent by Premier Danielle Smith to Finance Minister Travis Toews and Justice Minister Tyler Shandro last month.
The premier asked Toews to make recommendations on a pension plan in Alberta that would “increase pension benefits for seniors and reduce premiums for workers.”
Smith also asked the finance minister to make recommendations on creating a new provincial revenue agency that would collect all Alberta taxes. Ottawa currently collects the federal and provincial portions of personal income tax from residents, while Alberta collects provincial corporate income tax.
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Shandro was asked to finalize a decision on the establishment of an Alberta police service; Smith previously said she would like to see a provincial force augment the RCMP.
The chamber’s online survey of 337 business operators was conducted last week, just days before the province introduced Alberta sovereignty within a United Canada Act in the legislature.
When asked about the effect on their businesses of opting out of CPP and creating an Alberta pension plan, 54 per cent said it would be a disadvantage, while 35 per cent believed it would be a benefit.
The net difference — 19 percentage points — was up sharply from five percentage points in a similar chamber poll completed in 2020.
The idea of creating a new provincial revenue agency to collect provincial and federal taxes within Alberta also saw a decline, with 44 per cent saying it would be a disadvantage, while 35 per cent saw it as ‘ considered an advantage.
The concept of a provincial police force to replace the RCMP has also shifted.
The survey found 56 percent of respondents see this as a disadvantage for their businesses, up from 29 percent in 2020, while those who see it as an advantage increased slightly to 34 percent.
Leslie pointed out that senior business leaders (including company owners and managers) who responded to the survey were more “nuanced on areas where they see opportunities for the province to advance its economic interests.”
For example, 47 percent of senior leaders see it as an advantage for Alberta to play a greater role in international relations and negotiations that affect the province’s interests, compared to one-third of all respondents.
Alberta Chambers CEO Shauna Feth said Friday the group has not taken a formal position on these proposals, but conducted the survey to inform debate on the issues.
“The government really needs to engage with the business community so they can better understand some of their concerns,” she said.
“When you look at CPP’s performance, with annualized returns of 10.1 percent, you can understand why businesses would be a little concerned.”
At the end of September, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) reported net assets of $529 billion, with a 10-year annualized net return of 10.1 per cent.
John Graham, chief executive of the CPPIB, said in an interview this week in Calgary that the fund has delivered strong returns, calling the Canada Pension Plan “one of the best examples of federal and provincial cooperation, almost in the history of the country.”
However, it is up to Albertans to decide whether a provincial plan is drawn up, he added.
“There are obvious benefits to a national plan. Think about the risks in a pension plan, think about the risks of not delivering the intended benefit to the beneficiaries,” he said.
“The more broadly one can diversify those risks, pooling those risks across a diverse set of the population, the lower the risk ultimately is to the beneficiaries.”
Toews said earlier this month that he personally believes he “holds” an Alberta pension plan. great promise” and noted that the province contributes more to CPP than residents get back in benefits — in the neighborhood of $5 billion annually in some years.
Alberta pollster Janet Brown said the results of the chamber’s survey were not a surprise, following similar trends seen in the general population toward some of the Fair Deal proposals.
“Proponents of these ideas have not done a good job of selling them to the general public,” she added.
The opinions of business operators across Alberta aren’t the only feedback the province must weigh as it makes key decisions on matters such as dropping the CPP or creating a new revenue agency.
But they cannot be overlooked either.
“I know there are problems with Ottawa. . . but this idea that we have to run around and do all these things just doesn’t sit well with me,” says George Brookman, chairman of WCD Inc. and former Chair of Tourism Calgary.
“As a business owner and a business leader and a senior, I would be against the province starting its own pension plan.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.