Why Alberta’s having a referendum today — and what it means for Jason Kenney’s tenure as premier


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EDMONTON—When Jason Kenney first roared onto the political scene in Alberta to fuse together two struggling political parties, he had a bone to pick with Ottawa and a “fair deal” to fight for within confederation.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2021 (528 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

EDMONTON—When Jason Kenney first roared onto the political scene in Alberta to fuse together two struggling political parties, he had a bone to pick with Ottawa and a “fair deal” to fight for within confederation.

The hard-charging politician mashed together Alberta’s Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties to form the United Conservative Party back in 2017, then whipped through the province, dangling in front of throngs of supporters the prospect of voting equalization — a foundational principle of Canada — right out of the constitution.

Standing in the back of a pickup truck in a Red Deer parking lot, he once told a cheering crowd that if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t get a pipeline built “we will give Albertans an opportunity on voting to remove equalization from the Canadian constitution,” during the 2019 election campaign.

That’s not exactly how it works, of course. Rewriting the constitution takes strong support from most of the rest of the country, and some jurisdictions rely heavily on the system, which takes federally collected tax money and distributes it to some provinces to ensure an equitable level of government services nationwide.

But that didn’t stop Kenney from making an Alberta referendum on the issue a key plank in his platform and main cannon in his broader “fight for a fair deal” for the province.

At the time, Kenney argued separatist sentiments in Alberta were high — about 50 per cent feeling favourable toward it — and suggested that if he didn’t throw them something, in the form of a referendum and a fight for a “fair deal,” a more independence-minded politician might come along and fan the brewing anger into a full-blown separatist movement.

Finally on the horizon, Kenney’s referendum day has arrived.

It’s come not with the sound of beating war drums, behind a strong Alberta premier and a unified province — but with a whimper.

Monday’s vote, which will coincide with Alberta’s municipal elections, will be held as the province finds itself in the throes of a fourth wave of COVID-19 and as intensive-care units struggle, on the brink of collapse, after a series of missteps that most critics lay at the feet of the premier and his government.

Kenney’s political future appears uncertain, as he faces pressure from the public and some within his own party who want to oust him. A recent Angus Reid poll pegged his approval rate among Albertans at 22 per cent — the lowest among premiers in the country.

Now, critics say, the referendum on equalization is not only misguided, but may turn out to be more of a referendum on Kenney himself with the results — leaning toward a yes vote — nullified by his weakened position and a fracturing, not-so-United Conservative Party

Equalization money is collected through federal income taxes and distributed by Ottawa to economically struggling provinces to ensure public services maintain equilibrium. A province such as Prince Edward Island relies heavily on the assistance, because its economy is nowhere near the powerhouse that is Alberta’s and, without it, would likely have to crank provincial taxes up on its residents.

The principle of equalization has for years been criticized by Albertans as unfair due to the rest of Canada’s unfavourable attitude toward their development of oil and gas, all while they send billions through taxes to help buoy public services for some of those very critics.

Railing against equalization in Alberta is a surefire way to tap into a populist base in the province with long-standing sentiments of Western alienation and anger toward Ottawa.

It’s an anger that dates back to the current prime minister’s father’s tenure in Ottawa during the 1980s, when Pierre Trudeau set up the National Energy Board, enraging Albertans who felt it robbed them of significant energy revenues.

Albertans have also been frustrated, time and again, by scuppered pipeline projects such as Energy East and Keystone XL, as well as the uncompleted Trans Mountain expansion. The list of irritants goes on.

Kenney has said that getting rid of equalization seems like a fair thing to do for many Albertans, who have felt the effects of crashing international oil prices since 2014.

Kenney’s even suggested that Ottawa should repay some money to Albertans — who have some of the highest incomes in the country and hence contribute more to equalization through federal income tax — to the tune of about $4 billion in a reverse-equalization scheme.

To be sure, referendums can lead to sweeping change in countries; think Quebec separatism, Brexit and Scottish independence.

The question being voted on in Alberta is this: “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?”

The referendum is “an opportunity for us to underscore the deep frustration of Albertans with policies that have damaged our economy,” Kenney told reporters during a news conference last week.

But the messaging has been mixed, at times, with Kenney on the one hand suggesting to Albertans that they’d be able to simply vote away equalization while, on the other hand, when pressed, acknowledging that it doesn’t work like that.

Changing the constitution would also take vast negotiations with provinces and the federal government. It would need requisite approval from the House of Commons, Senate, and seven or more provinces making up at least 50 per cent of the population.

The real goal, Kenney says, is to force Ottawa’s hand through the referendum — to get the federal government to the negotiating table and to send a message about a litany of issues, some of which have little to do with the constitution, such as federal Bill C69, a federal law that changes how energy projects are assessed; and Bill C48, which bans tanker traffic off a portion of the West Coast.

Kenney says the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1998 ruling on Quebec’s ability to unilaterally separate from the country gives Alberta’s referendum leverage to open negotiations on the constitution. The court said that if a majority answers yes to a clear question on seceding from the country, then a duty to negotiate falls onto the federal government and other provinces.

But Kenney’s reading — that this ruling means Alberta’s referendum on equalization would spark the duty to negotiate — is incorrect, says Eric Adams, a constitutional law professor at the University of Alberta.

In the Quebec ruling, the court was dealing specifically in the context of a province wanting to secede from Canada, not about just any referendum. If a province could hold a referendum any time it wanted constitutional change, and that would force the federal government to the bargaining table every time, it would be constitutional chaos, said Adams.

“The public has not been well prepared for what’s at stake,” he said. “The government has continued to circulate and allow to circulate misunderstanding about how it operates.”

A recent online survey of 1,204 registered Albertans conducted for a team of professors from Viewpoint Alberta by Leger included an eight-question true-or-false quiz about the basics of equalization. About 600 people responded to the quiz and the average respondent failed it, achieving a score of 3.1 out of eight.

Most thought that a yes vote would mean Alberta would pull out of the equalization program, which is not possible unless people simply stop paying their taxes, said one of the researchers behind the survey, Jared Wesley, a University of Alberta political scientist.

“What happens if those expectations are not met?” said Wesley. “It leads to an escalation of demands.”

Also, if there is a majority who vote yes, what happens if there’s low voter turnout for the referendum, asked Wesley. “How seriously do we think the rest of Canada is going to take the premier’s hand when he shows up at the bargaining table?”

Kenney has said he wants “a fairer equalization formula” that better considers Alberta’s resource revenues.

But Adams noted that the equalization program, and the formula it uses, exist outside of the constitution. Even if the section on equalization was removed from it, the program would remain, he said.

“It’s very difficult to grab hold of, from my perspective, what actually this referendum is about — other than marshaling a kind of sense of anger toward Ottawa,” said Adams.

Canadians, meanwhile, might also look at other things, such as the fact the federal government paid $4.5 billion for the Trans Mountain pipeline project in 2018 or the fact that, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Alberta has received the most support from Ottawa of any province, said Wesley.

Alberta received $11,410 per person during the pandemic, followed by Ontario, which received $9,940, according to research released in August by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“It was a very risky move to begin with,” Wesley added of the referendum. “But the timing couldn’t be worse for this right now.”

Frankly, it wouldn’t be of much surprise to anyone to see Albertans vote to remove equalization from the constitution — it’s long been a gripe in the province. But if those expectations aren’t subsequently met — even after Kenney’s political career is over — it could mean demands are ramped up in other ways that include different things, such as kicking out the RCMP and setting up a new provincial police force, or leaving the Canadian Pension Plan and launching an Alberta one, Wesley said.

Some say the referendum could end up being about Kenney, too, resulting in more no votes or fewer people casting a ballot.

“His political career is in jeopardy if they lose the vote,” said Wesley. “I would say it’s in jeopardy if they don’t get a resounding victory of 60 per cent, at least in terms of the popular vote on the referendum and a very sizable turnout.”

According to his survey, the “yes” side has a leg up, with 43 per cent support while the “no” side has 26 per cent. Meanwhile, 31 per cent said they either would not vote or didn’t know how they’d vote.

Kenney’s approval rating has consistently fallen since its high of 61 per cent after his election in 2019, according to Angus Reid’s most recent polling.

Daniel Beland, a political science professor at McGill University, said some Albertans may want to use the referendum as an opportunity to express their disapproval with his leadership.

The premier has already faced high-profile calls from within his own party to resign. His caucus is split between MLAs who vehemently disagree with any public health restrictions in the pandemic, such as vaccine passports, and those who believe Kenney waited too long in the summer to act on skyrocketing hospitalizations — leading to extreme ICU pressure.

Since Kenney is the would-be messenger of the referendum results to the rest of Canada, the leverage could be further lost if he’s viewed elsewhere as not representing the views of most Albertans, said Beland.

“Jason Kenney is a diminished political figure within his own province and people outside the province know that,” he said.

“To dance, you can dance alone in front of your mirror, but if the others don’t want to dance, it might feel quite lonely.”

Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt

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