Later this month, the United Conservative Party of Alberta will pick its first leader. Regardless of who wins, the result will have immediate implications for the Liberal government in Ottawa, but also the entire country.
If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau puts his ear to the ground, he may detect the sound of war drums emanating from the West. And the person pounding hardest on them is Jason Kenney, the former federal Tory cabinet minister and purported front-runner in the UCP leadership race.
He is itching for a fight with the PM.
Mr. Kenney is attempting to exploit a tangible frustration in Alberta. It's not news that the province has been devastated, economically, by the downturn in oil prices. What people are trying to come to grips with now is the dawning realization that $50-a-barrel crude might be the new normal, with all the real-world, fiscal implications that entails.
Mr. Kenney has tapped into a resentment that is tied to the sense that the rest of Canada has turned its back on a province that has, for years, been the country's economic sugar daddy. Moreover, there is the growing perception that Mr. Trudeau and the band of progressives around his cabinet table are anti-resource development.
And on that front, the death of the Energy East pipeline has only helped inflame East-West tensions.
While there is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest the pipeline's demise was primarily based on market economics, there is no escaping the long shadow of politics that loomed over the decision.
The fact is, Quebec didn't want the pipeline. When TransCanada announced it was spiking the venture, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre was positively gleeful. He'd spent years, after all, rubbing the West's nose in the realpolitik of the situation. He famously chided pipeline proponent and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall in a tweet: "Montreal Metropolitan Community population: 4 million … Saskatchewan population: 1.13 million …" End of story.
He might well have added "Liberal seats in Quebec: 40. In Saskatchewan and Alberta: four."
Not surprisingly, Mr. Kenney has made equalization payments a campaign talking point. Who can blame him? Alberta has been a chief underwriter of the billions la belle province receives in equalization payments each year. Yet, here is Quebec's political class rejoicing an outcome that only makes Alberta's economic future more tenuous.
Mr. Kenney is proposing a gambit to remove non-renewable natural-resource revenues from the equalization formula. It's a ploy that generates wild applause at business-crowd luncheons in Calgary, but in practical terms, it would do little to alter the current equalization arrangement in the country.
Even taking natural-resource revenue out of the mix, the strength of Alberta's economy would preclude it from receiving any money in equalization. Moreover, it would not measurably diminish the amount of money the province pays out in equalization either.
That is not to say that the current system isn't in need of revisiting. There is no question it should better reflect contemporary realities. Today, the four "have" provinces in Canada are Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. Yes, Newfoundland – a province whose economic troubles make Alberta's look insignificant by comparison.
The idea that Newfoundland would not be getting equalization help at the moment but Ontario and Quebec would is absurd. There needs to be an equalization formula that recognizes current-day truths; the existing legislation is not nearly nimble enough. The federal government also needs to review the rule that says equalization payments must increase every year.
Of course, Alberta has been squawking about equalization payments for years. Anger over the billions being handed to Quebec helped, in part, fuel the rise of the Reform Party and the sentiment of Western estrangement more broadly in the 1980s and 90s. A lot of the language we're now hearing from conservative politicians in Alberta and elsewhere echoes back to that time. Others are detecting this phenomenon, too.
"Western alienation is rearing its ugly head again," Calgary-based economist Jack Mintz recently noted in the Financial Post.
And Jason Kenney is sure to give amplified voice to it, should he take over Alberta's new conservative party later this month, as many expect. Before it's over, we could see a full-scale brawl in this country.