Unlike climate policy, when it comes to their pensions, Albertans aren't under any illusions.
The Alberta government is trodding a rough path when it comes to establishing a provincial pension plan.
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A vast majority of Albertans consistently oppose the idea of abandoning the CPP. The sentiment dates back decades. Just ask members of Ralph Klein’s MLA Committee on Strengthening Alberta’s Role in Confederation (2003-04) or Jason Kenney’s Fair Deal Panel (2020). Both bodies distanced themselves from the push to establish an Alberta Pension Plan in the face of public backlash.
Worse yet for the government: Albertans know that public opinion is decidedly against the UCP’s pension gambit.
This is an important point. Unlike other policy areas where the government can exploit the public’s ignorance, Albertans are not deluding themselves about the prevailing consensus in favour of the Canada Pension Plan.
Let me explain why this is so problematic for the UCP.
False sense of social reality: climate
Political culture is a powerful force.
A set of unspoken assumptions about the way politics ought to be played, political culture defines what is acceptable to think, appropriate to say, and desirable to do in our community. Political culture establishes norms and expectations about how the typical person should behave and what good governments should and should not do.
Political culture is preservative. It creates the sense that there is no alternative (TINA) but to support the things we all assume are acceptable. To do otherwise is either futile or — in the case of climate politics in our province — unAlbertan.
Political culture is so powerful it can even trump public opinion.
Earlier this month, I penned a piece that established Albertans are deluding themselves when it comes to climate policy. It’s not that they are whistling past the graveyard of good ideas to fight climate change. Rather, Albertans remain convinced that their pro-climate views are extreme. They feel that the clear consensus in favour of emissions caps and economic transition doesn’t actually exist. It can’t exist. Because that’s not “Albertan.”
This false sense of social reality stands in the way of reform. If Albertans don’t think their views are mainstream, they’re less likely to advocate for them and more likely to consider environmentalists as “extreme.” And if residents believe the typical Albertan is unlikely to support collective action, they’re less likely to push for it themselves regardless of their own, personal views.
The Smith government’s rhetoric flies in the face of public opinion, typecasting Albertans as shills for the oil and gas industry and enraged at the idea of federal climate regulation. If enough residents realize their own views are in the mainstream, they can begin to throw off these stereotypes and demand more than bluster and foot-dragging from their provincial government. And, more than a distortion of who they really are.
When it comes to pensions, Albertans are under no such illusion. Albertans are opposed to exiting the CPP and they know it. More on that in a moment.
According to forthcoming research from our Common Ground team, the false sense of social reality (or “pluralistic ignorance”) gripping most policy debates in Alberta cuts cross all segments of society. It afflicts progressives and conservatives, urbanites and ruralites, the highly-educated and those who are not. This tendency to kid ourselves is pervasive. It is not confined to climate policy, nor are Albertans unique in succumbing to it.
But not when it comes to pensions.
In our January 2023 Viewpoint Alberta survey, we asked 1200 Albertans about their own positions on public policy issues. That only 22% support adopting a provincial sales tax (PST) is hardly surprising given Albertans’ persistent aversion to taxes.
Similarly, the lack of support for the Alberta Sovereignty Act (28%), Alberta tax collection agency (25%), and Alberta police force (24%) aligned with earlier surveys that demonstrate a clear consensus in favour of building bridges with the rest of Canada rather than firewalls around the province.
Some findings surprised us, though. A full 47% of Albertans support “removing all public funding from private schools” and 44% support “transitioning Alberta’s economy away from oil and gas.” These findings suggest Albertans are not as conservative as we typically assume.
These assumptions about Albertans being right-wing and anti-Ottawa are firmly rooted in the political culture. But they simply don’t hold up to testing.
We asked a follow-up question in our Viewpoint survey: what percentage of Albertans do you think would support these various measures? The results are telling.
While nearly half of all Albertans support transitioning away from fossil fuels and divesting from private schools, the perceived level of support for these measures is substantially lower.
In the eyes of Albertans, only 27% of their neighbours want to shift the economy away from oil and gas and less than a third (31%) want to eliminate public funds to private schools. (For what it’s worth, the perceived level of support for the PST is half of what it is in reality.)
It’s little wonder progressives fail to move on these issues. Regardless of what the experts say about the merits of the policy shifts, the perceived political risks outweigh the perceived benefits.
Yet, the most striking element of these findings lies in how closely perceived and actual public opinion align when it comes to the “Fair Deal” measures being pushed by the UCP, including pensions.
True sense of social reality: pensions
Only 27% of Albertans favour abandoning the Canada Pension Plan. That’s precisely the same proportion that Albertans estimate want to ditch the national plan. The UCP should take note.
Simply put: the vast majority of Albertans don’t like severing ties with the rest of Canada on things like pensions. And Albertans know it.
What happens when public opinion does align with the prevailing political culture? In those cases, people who want to change the status quo have an uphill battle ahead of them. They need to both shift public opinion (what Albertans actually think) and political culture (what Albertans perceive as the prevailing view). That two-pronged fight will require a lot of resources and talent, as I discuss at the end of this piece.
[Sidebar: Ironically, the Alberta New Democrats faced a similar challenge in the last provincial election. They needed to convince the electorate they were the best choice and that they could actually win. They failed on both counts, demonstrating that opinion and culture change take persistence.]
How does “Joe Albertan” feel about pensions?
Beyond the numbers, our Common Ground focus groups provide a deeper sense of how Albertans feel about pensions. We ask our participants to imagine what life’s like for the typical Albertan. More often than not, folks name this persona “Joe”. They describe him as being middle-aged, white, from a rural area, and working in a blue-collar job. Asking participants to view the world through Joe’s eyes gives us some insights into Alberta’s political culture, and how it influences both public opinion and public policy.
If Joe doesn’t support a particular policy shift, it’s unlikely the idea will gain traction with the broader population. If he’s against the change, however, that opposition has an even greater effect, making it virtually impossible to achieve reform.
The first thing to note: Joe doesn’t think very often about pensions. In the 99 focus groups we’ve run throughout Alberta since 2019, not once did the topic of pensions arise without prompting. From this, we might conclude pensions are not something that’s top of mind for the typical Albertan.
Here’s one exchange from Fort McMurray in August 2022. In this case, their typical Albertan was named “Jack”:
Participant 1: I think Jack thinks if Quebec can do it, why can't Alberta do it? Yeah. Why can't they be more independent? Like Quebec be your own Republican side of Canada. Kind of like Quebec has attempted to do. They have successful on it, but they do have their own pension fund. They have unforgivable debt there that the federal government doesn't seem to care about it and yet we support them.
Moderator: Okay. So Jack could be out there because we were talking about having a referendum on this. You think Jack would vote yes for our own pension plan? Alberta pension plan?
Participant 2: I think he would.
Moderator: What do you think? Get rid of the CPP and take on our own pension plan?
Participant 3: No.
Participant 2: Maybe both?
Moderator: Okay, CPP as well? You want to have both?
Participant 2: Okay. No.
Other “typical” Albertans also showed support for an Alberta Pension Plan. Speaking in the aftermath of the 2019 federal election, here is how one focus group in Lethbridge described “Joe’s” position on abandoning the CPP:
Participant 1: He'd be all for it.
Participant 2: Probably all for it.
Participant 3: He'd probably be all for it.
Participant 4: He'd ask to be on the panel [investigating it].
Participant 2: As long as we're going to make more than we have under the federal system.
Here is another exchange from a second focus group in Lethbridge that same night. The typical Albertan there was named “Rick”:
Participant 1: I don't think he'd want that [an Alberta Pension Plan].
Moderator: Why not?
Participant 1: Because well, CPP has been in for how long? And we had the Alberta government handle our heritage trust fund, and where did that go? So, are you going to give these same people your pension money? How many seniors would that effect and how badly would it effect seniors?
Moderator: Even if he's not a senior, he's 35?
Participant 2: Rick might be okay if he's smart and he's making good money, he can put some stuff away, but there's a lot of people now who are seniors that were making big wages and they were just lucky that they got some kind of pension from working… Now if that was to disappear, a lot of seniors would be in big difficulties.
. . . .
Participant 3: I think Rick is just so disillusioned and fed up with government programs. That he knows that it would, regardless, it would just be mismanaged to dismantle and restart another level of bureaucracy and policy, and just adds a whole other level of wastefulness.
In short, the typical Albertan has not given much thought to the issue of pensions. According to the three focus groups who discussed the topic, Joe seems persuaded by some of the arguments around Alberta asserting autonomy. But he’s also wary about the Alberta government taking control of his retirement savings.
We were last in the field in August 2023. It will be interesting to see if Joe has pensions on his mind now that the government has launched its campaign to pull out of the CPP.
Moving forward: Plans A, B, and C
Given that both political culture and public opinion are tilted against them, the UCP has three options:
Try to reshape public opinion.
This appears to be Plan A. The government’s “Your Pension. Your Choice.” survey is one of the most blatant push polls in the history of the province. Muddying the water with faulty numbers and shoddy legal interpretations, the UCP is effectively promising Albertans they can choose the color of their unicorn. Joe from Lethbridge might be persuaded by these arguments, but it’s unclear how many other Albertans will.
Try to shift the political culture.
Plan B would involve convincing us that the typical Albertan is far angrier with the rest of Canada than they actually are. So angry, in fact, that they’d be willing to take half the CPP assets and leave seniors in the rest of the country without a pension.
Here, look for the provincial government to pick (even more) fights with Ottawa and other provinces to drum up anger against their fellow Canadians.
While much of the UCP base subscribes to this politics of resentment, our Common Ground focus groups show that the Take Back Alberta (TBA) approach has limits among the general population.
Shifting a political culture to this degree takes time. That’s what makes the strategy so risky to provincial and federal Conservatives.
Failure to execute Plans A and B could mean more than scuttling the Alberta Pension Plan. If the UCP becomes associated with an unpopular policy that is clearly outside the public zeitgeist, it risks being on the wrong side of both public opinion and political culture as it enters the next provincial election.
Federally, the Poilievre Conservatives are on the precipice of power. Animosity from Alberta is hardly an asset on the campaign trail or in government. It’s hard to see western alienation or pension policy as being top priorities for Polievre in either environment.
Abandon the push for a separate Alberta Pension Plan.
The UCP government still has an out. They can save face, renew relations with other governments, repair Alberta’s reputation with the rest of Canada, and limit political risk for themselves and the Poilievre Conservatives by committing not to hold a referendum on abandoning the CPP.
Politically, this will not go over well with their TBA base. This is why such a move is unlikely before this November’s UCP Annual General Meeting. In the longer term, however: if Plans A and B continue to fall flat, retreat may be the only realistic option. If pullback is even politically possible by that point.
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