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Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.

In the leadup to the 2019 election, Jason Kenney promised to fight for what he described as a “fair deal” for Alberta if his United Conservative Party won.

To do that, the first item on Mr. Kenney’s list was a referendum that would ask Albertans whether they wanted the federal equalization program eliminated from the Constitution. The goal was never actually to get rid of the program, but rather to use it as leverage to wrestle concessions form the federal government on the issues of pipelines, environmental laws, and the equalization formula itself.

Mr. Kenney initially said the threat of a referendum would force Ottawa’s hand, but the Trudeau government did not bend to the Premier’s demands to repeal the overhaul of the federal environmental-assessment program that was brought in through Bill C-69. Equalization has long been synonymous in Alberta with the federal government’s unfair treatment of the province.

That referendum is now less than two weeks away; the question is on the ballot alongside municipal elections scheduled for Oct. 18. The question is: “Should section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 – Parliament and the government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments – be removed from the Constitution?”

Mr. Kenney said months ago that he and members of his government would be out campaigning in favour of a Yes vote, but the reality has been much different. There have been no government ads urging Albertans to reject equalization, nor has the Premier held any No rallies, speeches or other events designed to persuade his province to vote in favour of the referendum. The UCP has been handing out lawn signs and bumper stickers.

Globe columnist Kelly Cryderman says a big part of the reason Mr. Kenney hasn’t taken an active role is timing. The referendum is happening in the middle of a devastating fourth wave of COVID-19, which has overwhelmed the province’s hospitals and killed hundreds of people in the past month alone.

The Premier said he’s too busy focused on managing the pandemic, though he’s been making the pitch for a Yes vote when asked by reporters.

But, as Kelly writes, there’s another likely reason for the Premier’s apparent absence: Mr. Kenney has become so unpopular that the vote has come to be seen by some as an unofficial referendum on his leadership. Recent polls have put the Premier’s approval rating near the depths of the dismal numbers former Alberta premier Alison Redford faced right before she resigned in 2014.

In other words, the Premier could do far more harm than good if he cast himself as the face of the equalization referendum.

While Kelly dismisses the referendum as a “a high-priced, attention-grabbing political stunt,” especially as the Premier makes it clear that he’s not actually pushing to end equalization, she says it could still give the province some ammo in its fight with Ottawa.

”But even if it’s gimmicky, Alberta could arguably use some leverage. The province is no longer an economic powerhouse that draws people and investment with ease. It has little representation within the governing federal Liberal ranks.”

The Premier has been pushing a theory that a Yes vote would compel the federal government to respond by opening up constitutional negotiations, though the consensus among legal experts is that Alberta’s referendum carries no legal or constitutional weight. Mr. Kenney points to a Supreme Court of Canada decision about Quebec separation in the mid-1990s to bolster his argument.

Eric Adams, a law professor at the University of Alberta, is among the legal scholars who’ve argued that Mr. Kenney is wrong. Prof. Adams wrote a piece in The Globe and Mail over the summer that said the Premier’s assertion is based on a misinterpretation of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling.

“Alberta, like any province, can seek to change a particular aspect of the Constitution of Canada. But that desire, and any referendum result that supports it, grants only what the constitutional amending formula already provides: a process of constitutional change that requires broad agreement among provinces and the federal government. "

For more on the referendum, including how equalization works in the first place, read our explainer to learn everything you need to know.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.

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