Granthshala editorial: Alberta is holding a referendum on equalization – and you’ll never guess what isn’t going to happen next

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Voters in Alberta’s municipal elections next Monday, along with local candidates for mayors, city councils and school boards, will find an unusual question on the ballot: Are they in favor of rewriting a part of Canada’s constitution.

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NS query is straightforward: “Should section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 – the commitment of Parliament and the Government of Canada to the principle of equality of payments – be removed from the Constitution?”

It is the product of a strategy from the quixotic referendum 2019, when Jason Kenney became premier and promised to address complaints he had with a plan for Alberta to “stand up” against all enemies, real or imaginary. Eliminating equality is, of course, not something Alberta’s government has the power to do. It’s also not something Ottawa or most other provinces have no intention of doing. Instead, as Mr Kenny said when he announced the vote in June, he wants to “move Alberta’s fight for fairness to the top of the national agenda.”

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But injustice is hard to see. And it’s not even at the top of the list of issues in Alberta, as the province grapples with a terrible fourth pandemic wave, supercharged by bad decisions from the Kenney government. Emergency External Aid now supports staffing in Alberta’s overcrowded ICU. Premiere’s popularity is at its peak. A section of his own party is trying to oust him.

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The equation was established in 1957, supported by both Federal liberals and progressive conservatives. (Remember when Western Canada was a non-territory?) The goal is ensuring that the provinces have the financial capacity to provide a relatively equal level of services. The principle was enshrined in the Constitution in 1982 and has long been an essential part of the country’s functioning.

Mr. Kenny often argue That Alberta is paying for par, but that’s not quite right. No provincial government pays. Equalization is a federal program, funded by federal income taxes and other revenues. And Albertans are subject to the same federal tax rates as other Canadians. The reason that the province is a net payee to the federal treasury and equities, rather than a net recipient, is that Albertans, on average, have a higher income than other Canadians. It’s like someone making $100,000 a year and wondering why they paid more in taxes than their neighbor who made $20,000 less.

Quebec is usually the target of Mr. Kenny’s anger, but on a per capita basis the top beneficiaries of equality are actually New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.

Can a change in equality be considered? Undoubted. But Mr. Kenny, inciting regional protests, ignores that the last federal government to make major changes to the program was Alberta’s Harper government, in which he served as a senior minister.

Complaints about the raw deal are exaggerated. In 2020-21, when the pandemic hit every province and Alberta doubled in oil and gas prices, it was a $10.5 billion federal transfer that accounted for a quarter of Alberta’s revenue. The reason transfers are so strong is because Mr. Harper has reworked the rules.

Back in 2019, one of Mr Kenny’s reasons for calling for a referendum was a lack of progress on an oil pipeline in the Pacific. Fast forward to this year, and Alberta’s government is beset with a lot of problems — but not this one. Ottawa paid $4.4 billion to buy the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, and is spending $12.6 billion to expand it. Meanwhile, the oil price rose to US$80 a barrel last Friday. Natural gas has also boomed. Alberta expects $11 billion more revenue in 2021-22 than forecast in its February budget, and could shoot higher.

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Mr. Kenny behaves as if he speaks for Alberta’s ID, but the province is much more complicated than that. A poll also showed Albertans to support equality. One Environmental Institute Survey from 2020 found that 57 percent of Albertans either strongly or somewhat supported it.

Like all provinces, Alberta has received some credible complaints over the years, but its savvy leaders haven’t worked hard to equalize. In 1980, at the first ministers’ meeting on the Constitution, Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed spoke enthusiastically in favor. Albertans’ wealth, he said, reinforced equality, but the program was, in his view, “an important aspect of the Canadian Confederation”. Alberta voters should think about it when they vote next Monday.

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