Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says whoever wins the federal election must open up the equalization formula to ensure a fair deal for his province or he will follow through with his threat to hold a provincial referendum on the issue.
Alberta’s United Conservatives, who argued the province has been getting a bad deal, made the referendum promise a central plank of their successful run to win power this spring. The equalization program, in which Ottawa sends about $20-billion annually in federal income tax money to poorer provinces, has become a flashpoint in Alberta in recent years as the province’s economy has struggled.
Mr. Kenney’s provincial opponents have dismissed the proposed vote as expensive political theatre that could pit Canada’s regions against each other. Indeed, Mr. Kenney has repeatedly singled out Quebec for receiving the lion’s share of the federal transfer program. Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is now campaigning heavily in Quebec ahead of the Oct. 21 vote, seeking to pick up seats in a province Mr. Kenney has characterized as taking advantage of the federal program at the expense of the Tory heartland in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“The whole goal of that referendum would be to get a fair deal for Alberta in the federation on equalization,” Mr. Kenney told reporters in Calgary on Monday. The referendum is tentatively scheduled for midway through the next four-year federal mandate, October, 2021, to coincide with Alberta’s municipal elections.
According to Mr. Kenney, Alberta would call off the referendum if a new coastal pipeline is built, federal industrial regulations and a tanker ban off the northern B.C. coast passed by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s government are removed, and real changes were made to the federal program.
“If the federal government were, wonder of wonders, to give us a fair deal on equalization, then that would make it redundant and pointless, but I think the chances of that are about as great as a snowball’s chance in hell,” Mr. Kenney said.
Mr. Kenney has sparred publicly with Quebec Premier François Legault over equalization. The Quebec Premier has said his province is entitled to the program, which is enshrined in the Constitution, and won’t discuss adjustments to it. However, Mr. Legault has made getting his province off the program, through higher economic growth and a concurrent rise in salaries, a long-term goal.
Speaking with reporters at the Calgary Stampede last July, Mr. Scheer indicated that the election of a federal Conservative government would be enough to squelch support for the referendum. “If we get a Conservative government this October, I don’t believe we’ll have to have those conversations because we’re going to get Alberta’s energy sector back on its feet,” he said.
Mr. Scheer, from Saskatchewan, where the program is similarly unpopular, said he would like to make some changes to equalization, including reducing the amount of time between when economic data are released and changes are made to the complex formula governing the transfers of money.
A spokesman for Mr. Scheer said the Conservative Leader would “work with Premier Kenney to get Alberta’s economy moving”, but did not address questions about potential changes to equalization.
The Liberals did not respond to a request for comment.
Equalization is funded from federal income taxes. Neither Albertans nor their provincial government pay directly into the program. Money under the program is directed to provinces that have a lower fiscal capacity to raise taxes, allowing all provinces to offer similar levels of government services, including health and education.
Lori Williams, a political scientist at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said the problem with Mr. Kenney’s referendum is that it isn’t clear what would follow a vote demanding changes to the Constitution. A province has no legal right to demand changes to the Constitution and it’s unlikely most premiers would agree to substantial changes to equalization. The referendum also comes as polls have shown increasing support among Albertans to consider leaving Confederation.
“This referendum isn’t about collaborating or co-operating with the rest of the country, this isn’t about explaining the plight Albertans are in, it’s taking an almost threatening stance, it says if we don’t get this we’ll consider separating,” she said.