Alberta to hold hearings on controversial pension bill

Alberta's controversial civil service pension reform bill is being shelved pending further consultation, NDP Leader Brian Mason said Monday.
NDP leader Brian Mason says the government agreed on Monday to hold public hearings on Bill 9. (CBC)

Alberta's controversial civil service pension reform bill is being shelved pending further consultation, NDP Leader Brian Mason said Monday.

Mason said an agreement was reached Monday afternoon with government house leader Robin Campbell and the other two opposition parties on Bill 9, the Public Sector Pension Plans Amendment Act.

He said the opposition has promised to stop filibustering the bill and let it pass second reading, and in return the government will send it to public hearings for more input.

The bill would then come back in the fall session.

"It's a victory for the public because the government has ignored the public on this bill up until now, and now the public
will be given a chance to express its views," said Mason.

He said the bill will be referred to a standing committee for the public hearings. The committee would then come back with recommendations if necessary.

A news conference with Finance Minister Doug Horner and Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, is slated for Tuesday.

Horner told the house late Monday that while the bill will now receive more feedback, "we're doing the right thing. I still very firmly believe that."

"I still very firmly believe that there is an agenda that we've set for public sector pension sustainability, and I look forward to us working towards it throughout the summer and into the fall."

Wildrose finance critic Jeff Wilson said moving the bill to committee "is a positive step, better late than never."

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said in a letter to Premier Dave Hancock that proposed changes to the province's public sector pension plan would be 'crippling' for the labour force. (CBC)
Bill 9 affects the pension plans of more than 200,000 active public sector workers, starting in 2016.

The AUPE says the changes are unnecessary and that the current plan is on track to eliminate the $7.4-billion in unfunded liability.

Critics also say the bill opens the door to drastically reducing benefits through a contribution cap and by eliminating
inflation-proofing provisions.

There will also be higher penalties for those who retire early.

The decision to send the bill to committee represents a change of heart for Premier Dave Hancock's government.

Up until late last week, Hancock and Horner had said the bill would go through this session, that the changes were needed, and that the public had been duly consulted.

But over the weekend, the Alberta Liberals released a letter to the province from Calgary Mayor NaheedNenshi.

Nenshi's letter urges the province to hold off on the bill until it gets more information on the impacts it could have on the labour force.

Calgary represents a key political stronghold for the Tories, who have been plummeting in polls following the spending scandals of former premier Alison Redford.

Mason said he believes the filibuster, the union criticism, public concern and finally Nenshi's letter led Hancock to re-evaluate.

"I think they felt they had no choice but to refer it to public hearings," said Mason.

Earlier Monday, Hancock signalled the compromise deal, stating for the first time that it might be time to put the bill over to the fall.

"I think what's important as we go through the process of the pension reform piece is that people have an opportunity for discussion," said Hancock.

He said, contrary to Nenshi's letter, he believed Calgary had been consulted on the pension changes.

He also noted that he had to learn about Nenshi's letter from Twitter.

"(I) didn't have the courtesy of a call ahead of time," he said.