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Jim Dinning says he was surprised by report saying Alberta is entitled to $334-billion of

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Jim Dinning, chair of the Alberta Pension Plan Report Engagement Panel answers a reporters questions in Calgary, October 19, 2023. Todd Korol/The Globe and MailTodd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Jim Dinning says even he was surprised when he first read the report saying Alberta is entitled to $334-billion of Canada Pension Plan assets – a figure that represents 53 per cent of the entire fund.

“I was gobsmacked by the big number, and found it difficult to swallow,” he said. “And then I dug deeper into it.”

The chair of Alberta’s three-person pension panel, which has the task of listening to Albertans’ views on the idea of breaking off from the CPP, Mr. Dinning insists he’s running an independent consultation. In his opening remarks at the first telephone town hall earlier this week, he said: “We’re not here as advocates. We’re here as listeners.”

The former provincial treasurer who could have been Alberta premier after Ralph Klein – he narrowly lost the 2006 Progressive Conservative leadership race – also said in two interviews with The Globe and Mail that he’s trying to steer clear of the larger political debate.

This is a difficult task in a week where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set off a war of letters on the topic between himself and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith. Then, the struggling-in-the-polls Liberals starting talking about the destabilizing effects of Alberta leaving the CPP as a defensive response to a budget query in Question Period.

That was followed by Pierre Poilievre issuing a statement saying the Trudeau government’s “unconstitutional anti-development laws and painful carbon taxes have forced Albertans to look for ways to get some of their money back.” But the Conservative Leader still encouraged Albertans to remain in the CPP.

At the same time, Mr. Dinning is also distancing himself from the Alberta government. The province’s online pension survey (with accompanying ads) has attracted criticism for not asking whether people like the idea of leaving the CPP. Instead, it steamrolled ahead to questions about what the province should do with all the extra billions of dollars it will someday have sloshing around.

The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board said this week that the Alberta government questionnaire is “formulated to direct opinions rather than seek them” and shows “undisguised” bias and aims.

The CPPIB laid out its complaints in a letter to Mr. Dinning, who referred its concerns to the government. “This is their survey,” he said.

But still, it’s hard to see Mr. Dinning’s panel as near neutral when it’s been created by a United Conservative Party that has long been pushing for a separate Alberta pension plan.

Mr. Dinning now cites the controversial LifeWorks $334-billion figure as a straightforward exercise in number-crunching. And while Albertans are definitely not clamouring for it, here we are, spending millions of dollars to flesh out an issue barely mentioned by the UCP in the provincial election held just five months ago.

This week at the telephone town hall, pension panel member Moin Yahya touched on the legal battles and uncertainty that will inevitably follow any Alberta decision to leave the CPP, saying “this question might end up before the courts before we know exactly how much we get.”

But in general, the risk that Alberta will not get the money it thinks it will has been desperately underplayed. It’s unclear what Mr. Trudeau meant in his letter to Ms. Smith when he said cabinet ministers are under instructions “to do everything possible to ensure CPP remains intact.” Since provinces do have the right to create their own pension plan, it could mean tough exit bargaining on Ottawa’s part.

Federal officials who will have a say in what assets a province would receive are arguing on background that the Alberta government figures are “conjecture.”

To that last point, Mr. Dinning rightly calls for critics to lay their own numbers on the table. “They haven’t done the calculations. All they’ve said is, ‘no it’s not.’ “ No one else has provided an alternative analysis, save for steady and prolific University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe who has called the LifeWorks analysis “full of holes.”

For those who know some history of Alberta politics, one of the biggest questions is why Mr. Dinning is a major player in the debate at all. This is the respected Alberta treasurer who helped knit together the CPP as we know it. (The Globe praised him in 1997 for his behind-the-scenes role in brokering a federal-Ontario compromise on CPP reform).

And a decade later, it was Mr. Dinning who attacked PC leadership rival Ted Morton for his pursuit of Alberta “firewall” policies, such as establishing a provincial pension plan.

Why has Mr. Dinning come out of retirement to take this fraught job?

Things have changed since 1997, he said. Former provincial finance minister Travis Toews approached him early this year about heading the pension panel, he said. He was also given the LifeWorks report, and Mr. Dinning’s initial reaction was the same as many others: surprise.

However, Mr. Dinning said once he was briefed, the consultant’s numbers made sense. Alberta’s younger population, higher wages and greater percentage of employed people means workers here have over-contributed on a net basis by $60-billion, over 50-plus years, plus compound interest.

He pushes back on a word I used to describe Alberta’s position that it is owed more than half the pension pie: odious. It’s a word I chose because the calculation in the LifeWorks report would likely necessitate a draw of more than 100 per cent of the fund if every province decided to leave. And because years from now, it’s possible Alberta’s pensioners will need to be propped up by others. And because it would hurt our fellow Canadians, and our relationship with the rest of Canada is more than a transactional one.

His argument is “why is it odious for a province like Alberta, an economic force in and of itself” to say “here’s the arithmetic on CPP’.” He also likes the potential of building the province’s financial-services sector.

Ultimately, he said his job as panel chair is to listen to what Albertans have to say and report back to the government in May. As well as telephone town halls, there will be in-person consultations in December.

The CPPIB is welcome to make a submission, he said. Everyone’s input will inform whether a referendum will actually take place or not, he added.

“If people phone in and say, ‘panel, I’m opposed to it. Don’t do it,’ that’s going to get written down.”

But Mr. Dinning is also relying on a LifeWorks report still untested by the world of politics, the law or other actuaries. His role was established by a provincial government that plays down the potential financial risks of a seismic pension shift.

All of this makes the assertion that his panel is independent difficult to swallow.

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