If you're a public employee in Alberta and you've been deferring your salary for years to build a secure retirement through your modest pension, Jason Kenney would like to take it away.
If he can't do that, he at least wants to ensure no one else can have the same thing.
How can I be so sure of this?
It's all in the responses to a questionnaire Kenney dutifully filled out for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) back in 2017 when he was campaigning for the leadership of the United Conservative Party.
The CTF, by the way, has a real thing about public service pensions, especially the defined-benefit kind. It hates them. It lobbies constantly to have them eliminated. You'll never hear the CTF say pensions are founded on deferred income, are usually both modest and cost-effective, or that they're a great benefit to society.
So in the summer of 2017, the anti-tax Astroturf group surveyed the four candidates then running to lead the United Conservative Party about where they stood on its policy priorities and what they'd do if they led a government. Since Brian Jean and Doug Schweitzer didn't win, and Jeff Callaway … uh … dropped out … the only answers relevant at this point are Kenney's.
I suppose it was nice of CTF to ask. The CTF seems to think its job is to bark out policy orders to conservative politicians, who as often as not dash to wherever the group has scheduled a humiliating signing ceremony to affix their signatures to a pledge imprinted on Coroplast promising that they'll do as they're told.
Credit where credit is due, for an organization that in reality had only six members as of yesterday, not one of them with what you'd call a household name, this is real influence!
As a former president of the organization, however, Kenney seems in tune with the CTF's instructions and modus operandi. As we know, he'll even get up and sign a Coroplast pledge when the CTF hasn't summoned him!
Kenney's answers to the CTF questionnaire are revealing -- particularly if you're a public employee like a nurse, teacher, or first-responder -- because they show clearly what he would like to do about the "problem" of your retirement security. A general election on Tuesday that Kenney could very well win really should concentrate the minds of likely victims of his plans!
The CTF worded its highly tendentious question this way: "Will you eliminate unnecessary government employee positions, cut government employees' salaries by 10 per cent and put new employees in a less costly pension plan (defined contribution)?"
Just for starters, remember that the CTF's definition of "necessary" is likely not the same as yours, since the organization appears to hold the quasi-religious view the private sector always does a better job of everything -- even when the evidence is manifestly to the contrary, as in health care.
Assuring his friends at the CTF he will return to the austerity policies of Alberta's past -- sure to strike a positive chord with that group -- he vowed "such restraint will have to apply to public sector compensation."
After all, he asserted, "Alberta taxpayers cannot continue to fund levels of compensation that are consistently higher than those in the private sector …" (never mind that this is not true if you compare pay for jobs and qualifications and don't add in all the young people working at the minimum wages Kenney plans to reduce) "… or in the public services of other provinces" (never mind that Alberta consistently has for years had the highest costs for everything in Confederation, hence the slightly higher average salaries).
"Restraint in public sector compensation should begin with attrition," the UCP leader continued -- so take note if you're a nurse facing regular compulsory overtime. (Yes, I know he has said elsewhere he won't fire "front-line" health-care workers or reduce front-line services. So did his bromantic partner Doug Ford, the one who finishes his sentences for him. The Ontario premier is now doing just that.)
Kenney's answer continued: "Reforming public sector pensions for future beneficiaries will also be required to manage huge unfunded liabilities." (Emphasis added.)
This statement also deserves further analysis: First, it is clear from this Kenney would like to implement a two-tier pension plan, which would be a tragedy for new workers entering jobs such as nursing. In addition, it would hurt the security of the public employees who are already retired by undercutting the new generation that is the foundation of pensions like the 160,000-member Local Authorities Pension Plan (LAPP), the province's largest public-sector plan. The LAPP currently provides financial security for about 66,000 retired Albertans.
Second, there are no significant unfunded liabilities. The LAPP, for example, is now in surplus -- funded 104 per cent thanks to additional contributions made by members and the prudent management by the plan's board. The best we can say about a statement like Kenney's is that it's out of date.
"If MLAs have no pension," Kenney summed up -- taking responsibility for the decision of Ralph Klein's government to eliminate MLA pensions, a claim that must make Klein spin in his grave -- "it is not unreasonable to suggest that future public sector pension plans should avoid unfunded taxpayer liabilities."
Well, that's also been taken care of, thanks to Alberta's NDP government -- which did it the right way, by passing legislation that made the LAPP and other public sector pension plans independent jointly sponsored plans under the Pension Plans Act of Alberta.
Not that the CTF would be satisfied with that, because its real objective, it is said here, is to curtail the existence of pensions and wages that offer financial security to working people in the public sector, because that creates demand for fairness in the private sector and doesn't force retirees to depend on private sector financial institutions to manage their retirement funds.
Remember, the CTF has a history of close links to anti-union groups -- and, by extension, to workers' rights generally.
It must be noted that the CTF objects strenuously to the argument it is engaged in "Astroturfing," which is normally defined as masking the true sponsors of a message or group to make it appear as if it originates from grassroots supporters.
Nevertheless, despite purporting to be a broad-based "citizens' group," how else can you describe an organization with only six actual members, that is opaque about its sources of financing, and is linked through interlocking directorships and personnel exchanges to groups opposed to unions and public health care and devoted to supporting social conservative causes?
As for Kenney's 2017 promises to the CTF, he can't really claim to have made them when he was a "teenager," as he described some of the extreme statements he made while crusading against women's reproductive rights in his 20s. No, they obviously represent what he wants to do right now.
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 with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
Photo: David J. Climenhaga
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