The howls of outrage were as certain, and predictable, as winter snow on the prairies.
It happens each time the federal government reveals how much funding have-not provinces such as Quebec will receive under the national equalization program – Alberta goes ballistic. And with oil-price angst running at new highs and a provincial election around the corner, the fury emanating from Wild Rose country has been a sight to behold.
Perhaps no one has embodied the righteous indignation that is almost defining Alberta at the moment more than Jason Kenney, Leader of the United Conservative Party and the best bet to become premier after next spring’s election.
Yes, the fun may only be beginning.
The federal Finance Ministry recently revealed details of next year’s transfer levels, and they showed, among other things, that Quebec will receive $13.1-billion – which represents a $1.4-billion increase from the previous year and two-thirds of the total amount in the equalization pot.
This has become an increasingly bitter pill for people in Alberta to swallow for two reasons: the oil industry is in the tank right now and Quebec is against the Energy East pipeline going ahead. Quebec Premier François Legault inflamed the situation by saying last week he’s not “ashamed at all of refusing dirty energy.”
A needless and thoughtless provocation under the present circumstances, to be sure.
This, of course, set Mr. Kenney off. He rarely needs an excuse to go after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and this was fodder too rich and tasty to pass up. So to Twitter he took: “PM Trudeau gave Quebec a veto over any future Energy East Pipeline. Premier Legault exercised that veto, saying oil is ‘not socially acceptable in Quebec.’ Now QC gets $1.4 billion more in equalization for a total of $13 billion, thanks in part to Alberta’s oil industry.”
“Albertans are generous,” he said in another tweet. “But we shouldn’t be taken for suckers.”
Mr. Kenney would have known, likely as he tweeted those words, that is not true. Perhaps in a post-truth world, that doesn’t matter. The federal government didn’t give Quebec a veto over Energy East. The reason the project died was because Ottawa brought in new, tougher environmental regulations the proponent didn’t like so it walked away.
You can blame it on Quebec if you want, or you can acknowledge the federal government has a moral obligation to start reducing carbon emissions in this country. If that comes at the expense of a pipeline project so be it, I guess, unless Mr. Kenney can think of a way to get around the small problem of climate change. But to suggest Mr. Legault “exercised that veto” is a blatant falsehood. Mr. Legault wasn’t even premier when the project was deep-sixed.
As for equalization, I’m sure it’s tough for a lot of people in Alberta to see money going to a province that is projecting a $3-billion surplus. It’s also a province with outrageously high taxes, a burden Albertans don’t have. The equalization payouts are based on a formula that was conceived by the former federal Conservative cabinet, of which Mr. Kenney was a member. So he’s angry about a disbursement blueprint that he approved.
The equalization fund is made up primarily of money the federal government collects in taxes. Yes, Albertans contribute a disproportionate share, not because they’re getting ripped off, but because there are, per capita, more wealthy people in the province. The more you make the more you pay in income taxes, the more GST you pay because of your purchasing power.
I’ve never understood why politicians in Alberta think those in the rest of the country should be down on their hands and knees in gratitude because people in that province make so much.
I understand there are many living there now who are genuinely suffering as a result of the downturn in oil prices. There are people under economic stress in every province. (Visit Newfoundland and Labrador.) But trying to exploit that grief for political gain is wrong.
As we’ve seen in Donald Trump’s America, there is a huge social cost to dividing a country with words, by pitting one group of people against another. Are there problems with Canada’s equalization program? There may well be, ones the previous federal government contributed to in devising the formula.
But for heaven’s sake, let’s have a civilized and rational discussion about it rather than stoke anger and resentment. Or, in this day and age, is that too much to ask?