Well, the often-unpredictable process of weaponizing Alberta’s grievances has begun. Ever since the Wild Rose province has fallen on hard times, particularly in the oil sector, we knew it was coming.
But the truth of the matter is that all of this intergovernmental angst and bitterness has been building for some time. One could single out the June 2020 Fair Deal Panel report, the controversial "Buffalo Declaration" of early 2020 and even Stephen Harper’s notable 2001 "firewall" letter as laying the political groundwork for where we are today.
Accordingly, the Alberta government of Jason Kenney has introduced a motion in the provincial legislature to conduct a referendum on Oct. 18 on the federal Equalization Program. The proposed referendum question states plainly: "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?"
Kenney has rightly acknowledged, however, that a solid vote in favour of scrapping the program cannot be unilaterally implemented by the Alberta government. But an affirmative outcome could be used as a political strategy to get Ottawa’s attention and to compel it to engage in serious negotiations to revise the cash-transfer program.
Now, it’s not unusual for provincial governments, or even geographical regions, to call upon the partners of Confederation to fix whatever ails them. We are well aware of the clarion call in Atlantic Canada for "better terms" within the federation.
Yet Alberta is a "have more" province when compared to their poor cousins in other regions of the country. So why take out your frustrations on less well-off equalization-receiving provinces? Indeed, whatever did happen to that "Alberta advantage," I wonder?
To be honest, I’m actually befuddled about the precise purpose of holding a province-wide referendum on equalization in the fall. Who exactly is being targeted here — and, more importantly, why?
Is the inevitable favourable outcome supposed to pressure Ottawa into funnelling more federal dollars into Alberta or pushing it to revamp the equalization program? Will it serve to bring other equalization-receiving provincial governments over to Alberta’s way of thinking? Personally, I just don’t see it.
Or, does it have more to do with domestic political considerations within Alberta itself? Simply put, is it about political deflection and changing the channel on the many mishaps that have roiled the Kenney government — from the mishandling of the pandemic to a listless economy?
Just to be clear: the federal equalization program does not take money directly out of the pockets of Albertans. And it is not an extra deduction line on their bi-weekly paycheques. To be sure, no one in Alberta is being penalized by Ottawa’s equalization scheme. It is also true that the enhanced financial well-being of recipient provinces (such as Manitoba and Prince Edward Island) is not at the expense of non-recipient provinces such as Alberta or British Columbia.
Crucially, the program has zero impact on the standard of living of Albertans. The redistribution program is intended, admittedly in a complicated fashion, to address fiscal disparities among the provinces. It is supposed to give a helping hand to "have less" provinces in the federation, at a cost of $20 billion or so annually, that have fewer means of raising revenues or generating "fiscal capacity."
Significantly, the program is entrenched (and thus protected from abolition) in section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982. As the central provision states: "Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principles of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation."
So, is this equalization referendum Alberta’s version of Quebec’s game of constitutional blackmail? Will it cry foul and seek to incite "autonomous" forces in Alberta if the rest of the provinces reject its characterization of the federation? Is Kenney’s Alberta going to set in motion a process to eventually leave Canada if it doesn’t get its way?
One should remember that Alberta does not have the political clout of Quebec’s 78 seats — especially in the eyes of federal political parties. And it will certainly not be able to squeeze the current federal government, since the province has been a political wasteland for the Liberal party for decades. Nor would it have the backing from a sufficient number of provincial governments to open the equalization file (and thus the two-thirds of provinces needed to approve a constitutional amendment).
Still, it’s never a bad thing for a province like Alberta to blow off some political steam. And it’s also important for Canadians in other parts of the country to be mindful of the tough slog in Alberta these days. But other than internal electoral calculations, I fail to see the upside of Kenney’s ultimately divisive referendum gambit.
Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.