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Alberta law lets Kenney hijack teachers' retirement funds

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Alberta Teachers Association associate communications coordinator Jonathan Teghtmeyer. Image: David J. Climenhaga

"Jason Kenney says he will use a referendum to determine if Albertans want their Canada Pension Plan shifted to AIMCo," Jonathan Teghtmeyer, associate communications coordinator of the Alberta Teachers Association, observed before asking a perfectly reasonable question on social media on November 17.

So, Teghtmeyer tweeted, "why won't he allow teachers to vote on whether they approve the move of their pension funds to AIMCo?"

I will endeavour to answer this question.

The answer is: Because he doesn't have to.

Alberta law lets Kenney hijack teachers' retirement funds by legislative fiat and hand them over to the Alberta Investment Management Corp., commonly known as AIMCo, the Crown corporation set up to manage public sector pension funds. So he will.

Never mind that AIMCo underperforms the nearly $17-billion Alberta Teachers Retirement Fund, which currently manages teachers' pensions. The Alberta government's pension agenda, readers need to understand, has nothing at all to do with looking out for the interests of teachers and retired teachers.

It will be considerably more challenging for Kenney to get his paws on the money invested in the Canada Pension Plan by Canadians who happen to live in Alberta.

So the United Conservative Party government is prepared to engage in a referendum exercise if that will help it badger the federal government into to handing over our retirement funds to an agency into which it can dip its fingers.

Since we already have a pretty clear understanding of the electoral ethics of Kenney and his allies, not to mention their unquestionable campaign skills and the unlimited PAC funds that would be available to assist such an operation, an electoral victory on a pension referendum cannot be ruled out.

Another tweeter -- an apparently well informed but seemingly pseudonymous one -- pointed out yesterday that the answer to why Kenney and the UCP would want to do this is hidden in plain sight, in Section 19 of the Alberta Investment Management Corporation Act.

"The Treasury Board may issue directives that must be followed by the Corporation, the board, or both," Section 19 says in part.

In other words, Beckie Turlington concluded, correctly, in a thread on this topic that is worth reading, "the government can tell AIMCo what to do with the money it has even though the vast bulk of it belongs to pensioners, not the govt [sic]. Scary."

This also explains why the government is in the process, through Bill 21, the tendentiously named Ensuring Fiscal Stability Act, of snatching back the independence of large government pension funds like the Local Authorities Pension Plan and the Public Service Pension Plan that was promised 30 years go by the Progressive Conservative government of the day and finally delivered by the NDP last year.

Independent governance for the LAPP and PSPP lets taxpayers off the hook for unfunded liabilities by the funds, so on the face of it this would seem like a natural policy for a bean-counting government like the UCP to support.

However, it would also prevent the UCP or some future government from helping itself to any of the close to $60 billion in assets of the various Alberta public sector pension plans for whatever reason it wished.

Moreover, the NDP's Joint Governance of Public Sector Pension Plans Act would have allowed the independent pensions' boards to find another service provider than AIMCo after five years -- a necessary condition of true independence in the market-based competitive spirit the UCP claims to believe in.

This is as good a moment as any, I suppose, to remind readers that Norway with a population and fossil fuel resource similar in scale to Alberta's has accumulated more than a trillion U.S. dollars in its sovereign wealth fund over the past 40 or so years, whereas Alberta under more than four decades of Conservative mismanagement has pissed almost all of it away. The Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund was reported to be worth about $18.2 billion in March.

So we do need to ask, are these the people we want managing any of our retirement savings?

Which brings us back to the CPP. Kenney is not letting up on his campaign to get his mitts on that money -- and, from his perspective, why not go for the main chance?

"Another report suggests that Albertans would be better off running our own pension plan, like Quebecers have done for 60 years," the premier tweeted yesterday, even before his $650,000 firewall-style "Fair Deal" committee led by Preston "Secession Needs to be Part of the Strategy" Manning makes its report. He failed, however, to mention several salient facts.

First among them was that the report in question was done by ... wait for it ... AIMCo. Readers will agree AIMCo is hardly an unbiased source of information in these particular circumstances.

In other words, the "report" cited by Kenney could be fairly described as a sales pitch, despite its gee-whiz presentation in Calgary's Postmedia newspaper.

Second, Quebec chose to stay out of the CPP when it was created in 1965 by the Liberal government of prime minister Lester B. Pearson, not to pull out with God only knows what kind of nefarious intentions when it has been operating successfully for more than half a century and has the security of a vast fund of $330 billion to protect retired Canadians from the vagaries of volatile markets that Conservatives love, except when they're not working in the interests of an industry they favour.

Third ... what other reports? The last time the government of Alberta looked at this question, in 2004 when then premier Ralph Klein decided he had better respond to the infamous Firewall Manifesto dreamed up by Stephen Harper et. al., it concluded that "withdrawing from the CPP and creating a separate Alberta pension plan is not in the best interests of Albertans."

"Those opposed to withdrawing from the CPP … were also concerned that an Alberta plan would reduce pension portability between Alberta and other provinces," the nine MLAs on the committee on strengthening Alberta's role in confederation said in their final report. "They worried an Alberta plan would be subject to more risk due to its reliance on a smaller population of contributors. They noted that Alberta's current demographics could shift quickly and significantly."

Leo de Bever, former CEO of AIMCo, told the CBC last week that the idea makes no sense from the point of view of efficiency. "It would be better if all of Canada had one plan, OK, from an efficiency point of view," he said.

So it would be nice, one supposes, if Kenney would point us to these other, more favourable reports.

Fourth, the obvious fact that Kenney's principal objective is political -- to attack and discomfit the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, not to benefit Albertans, particularly retired ones trying to get by on a limited income.

Alberta pensioners would be wise to note how the Kenney government has recently de-indexed payments to severely handicapped Albertans. It's safe to assume Albertans dependent on a provincial pension plan might well face the same fate the moment it suited the government's need for additional tax cuts for billionaires. As long as Canadians sensibly keep Conservatives out of power in Ottawa, this kind of monkeying is far less likely with the CPP.

None of this answers the pressing question of what kind if directives the UCP might give to AIMCo. They could order it to invest additional funds in the Alberta oilpatch to buffer it from the cruel decisions of the market -- a policy that might be politically popular but would not be a sound investment strategy.

Or they might do considerably worse than that. The history of Conservative governments in Alberta should not make us confident they would exercise good stewardship of our retirement savings.

Regardless of what Kenney's tame "Fair Deal" panel concludes, we must hope that the federal government and the rest of English Canada firmly reject the idea of handing over Albertans' CPP savings to Kenney and his cronies.

One thing is certain, if the premier could just pull out of the Canada Pension Plan without so much as a by your leave, he would.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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