Jason Kenney is doing what he promised by holding a referendum on removing equalization from the Constitution in tandem with province-wide municipal elections in October. But it’s a campaign and vote riddled with potential pitfalls for the Alberta Premier, currently deep down in the polls.
There is plenty of rationale for why the Premier is proceeding. This referendum was a key plank in the campaign that led to the Premier and his United Conservative Party winning a massive majority of seats in the April, 2019, election. At the time, Mr. Kenney portrayed the idea as a challenge to Ottawa, but also as a kind of release valve for increasing Western alienation and separatist sentiment in the province.
The Premier has long made clear he’s more interested in the vibe around equalization rather than the actual, near-impossible task of making wording changes on the matter within the Constitution. “This is a strategy to elevate Alberta’s fight for fairness in the federation to the top of the national agenda, to get Ottawa’s attention, and to send a message to our friends and the rest of the country,” he said earlier this month.
This week, Mr. Kenney’s office said decisions about whether the province will have a referendum on other “fair deal” questions – such as the creation of a provincial police force or opting out of the Canada Pension Plan – are still being reviewed, with announcements to come. Offering at least one of these issues up to direct democracy could provide an opportunity to reconnect with his disillusioned conservative base. Many are still angered at the Premier for COVID-19 public-health restrictions, and hold the view his leadership style is top-down, and that he has been weak in his dealings with Ottawa.
The Premier might also point to legitimate beefs with Ottawa’s decision-making process on the equalization file. It is entirely a purview of the federal government, but has a big impact on provinces. In 2018, the federal Liberals quietly renewed the equalization formula to 2024, despite calls for at least having a discussion about potential tweaks that could make it more palatable or fairer for “have” provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. The latter province is facing years of digging itself out of a deep budgetary hole. Alberta has higher-than-average incomes, because of oil and gas, but faces elevated unemployment numbers and a trend of declining energy revenues.
The Premier has been critiqued for attacking equalization now while his political history includes being a key member of the Harper government, where he could have pushed for changes to the program. But given how things have changed so drastically from the years when he was a federal cabinet minister, it’s an empty attack. Mr. Kenney is correct that unhappiness with the program has increased in Alberta in recent years, in large part because other parts of the country have made it difficult to build pipelines and other facilities – actions that would boost Alberta’s finances by attracting new investment and maximize the value of Canada’s fossil fuel exports, for as long as they’re still a thing.
Equalization – understood by a few but a mystery to many – has also become a catch-all phrase for Alberta unhappiness with the relationship with Ottawa, or other parts of the country. People use the word equalization when they’re actually talking about health transfers, or Alberta’s cogent argument it deserves more in fiscal stabilization payments – a federal program meant to help provincial governments facing dramatic drops in revenues.
But here’s an initial list of problems with Mr. Kenney’s referendum. It feels like an attempt to bring us back to fall 2019, when anger at the federal Liberals was at a zenith and before the humbling pandemic hit the world. Some anger toward Ottawa has softened as a suite of federal programs – tens of billions of dollars – has rolled out to help keep businesses and individuals afloat during the pandemic. (Some starry-eyed Liberals might even be envisioning a return to having a few MPs on the Prairies).
Perhaps most dangerously, the fall referendum on equalization thrusts Mr. Kenney into a kind of quasi-campaign mode for the next four months. “You can expect the Premier and ministers to often speak in favour of removing equalization from the Constitution as part of their commitment to get a fair deal for Albertans,” the Premier’s executive director of communications, Brock Harrison, said this week.
Critics from both sides of the political spectrum say the equalization referendum could morph into a near-term appraisal of Mr. Kenney’s pandemic performance, before his government actually must face a general election in 2023.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has said the “crass” equalization question could backfire for the Premier, and his council is cheekily debating adding its own referendum about whether the city gets a fair deal from the province in the Oct. 18 vote. UCP MLA Drew Barnes, booted from caucus last month for being too public in his criticism of Mr. Kenney, is a huge fan of the referendum, but not of the Premier’s role in it. “Our main concern at this time is that the Premier’s lack of popularity may threaten the outcome of this referendum,” Mr. Barnes said.
But Mr. Kenney’s biggest problem might be that even if the “yes” side of the referendum wins – which is entirely plausible – what if it leads to nothing? What if, as conservative strategist Ken Boessenkool argues, even a successful referendum doesn’t force “concessions or policy changes from Ottawa. In short, a policy intended to placate Alberta’s restive separatists will only weaken the province in the long run.”
What if the Prime Minister ignores Mr. Kenney’s calls for “at least negotiations” on the topic? Then the Premier’s referendum gambit has truly failed.
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