Albertans have voted in favour of removing equalization from the Constitution in a referendum that Premier Jason Kenney says is designed to put pressure on Ottawa to address the province’s many grievances.
Voters also narrowly rejected a proposal to switch to permanent Daylight Saving Time. The referendums were held alongside municipal elections last week.
The equalization referendum was a campaign promise from Mr. Kenney’s United Conservative Party. Mr. Kenney threatened such a vote if the federal government did not address demands, such as repealing environmental laws that he argued hurt the oil and gas sector.
Results posted by Elections Alberta on Tuesday show 61.7 per cent voted Yes, with the majority of voters in all but five municipalities supporting the referendum question. Elections Alberta did not release turnout figures, but based on the number of eligible voters, turnout was about 39 per cent.
Mr. Kenney responded by tabling a motion in the legislature calling for an amendment to the Constitution to remove equalization, though he acknowledged that such a change is unlikely. Any constitutional amendment requires the support of at least seven provinces and 50 per cent of Canada’s population.
Mr. Kenney has previously suggested the province doesn’t really want to end equalization but rather force concessions in areas where his government believes Alberta has been treated unfairly.
The Premier said his government would wield the referendum results as it seeks revisions to the equalization formula, increased payments under the federal fiscal stabilization program, and changes to environmental laws.
“In the past, Albertans have expressed frustration, but we’ve now given Albertans an opportunity to express that in a formal democratic way to speak powerfully to Ottawa about our demands for fairness in the federation,” he told reporters Tuesday.
Mr. Kenney has contended that the referendum triggers a duty for the federal government to negotiate constitutional change, pointing to a Supreme Court of Canada opinion in a reference case in 1998 that dealt with Quebec secession.
The equalization program has long been a symbol of what many Albertans view as an unfair and uneven relationship with the federal government. Mr. Kenney argues that provinces such as Quebec shouldn’t benefit from wealth generated in Alberta while opposing resource projects such as oil pipelines.
“I would hope and expect that they [Ottawa] would respond by acknowledging the need to address a fundamental unfairness in the whole system of federal transfers, of fiscal federalism,” he said.
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau played down the significance of the referendum, noting that the federal government has no power to amend the Constitution on its own.
On Tuesday, Intergovernmental Affairs, Dominic LeBlanc, was dismissive when asked about the Alberta referendum result.
“The Premier decided to ask a non-binding question on a municipal election in Alberta, about an equalization formula, of which he was one of the authors when he was a minister in Mr. [Stephen] Harper’s government,” he told reporters in Ottawa.
“So I think maybe you should ask him what he thought could be achieved by that particular referendum question.”
Rachel Notley, leader of Alberta’s Opposition New Democrats, said the referendum – with the Premier’s confusing comments on the question and the low voter turnout – has weakened the province’s ability to press for change.
“This isn’t actually about our need and Albertans’ desire for a better fiscal relationship with Ottawa – something we can all agree on,” she said. “But what it is about is Jason Kenney and his own personal, political struggles.”
Rainer Knopff, a political scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, said a provincial referendum isn’t binding on the federal government. He said the Supreme Court of Canada decision that Mr. Kenney frequently cites appears limited to referendums on secession.
However, he said the Supreme Court’s opinion on Quebec secession likely requires Ottawa and other governments to respond and negotiate when a provincial legislature passes a motion calling for a constitutional amendment, as Alberta is now doing.
Even then, neither the Constitution nor the Supreme Court of Canada opinion spells out just what that negotiation must look like.
Nigel Bankes, a professor emeritus at the University of Calgary law school, said that even if the federal government has a duty to negotiate, a province likely has few options if it’s not satisfied with the response.
“It’s pretty clear that for the court, that would be a purely political process with no legal recourse,” he said.
The referendum on permanent Daylight Saving Time narrowly failed with a vote of 49.8 per cent for and 50.2 per cent against.
Experts argued that switching to permanent Daylight Saving Time would disrupt people’s sleep and harm their health, particularly in places in northern Alberta where the sun wouldn’t rise until 10:30 a.m. in the depths of winter.
With a report from Bill Curry in Ottawa
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