Do Kenney and Jean really care about equalization?
As the race for the leadership of the United Conservative Party heats up, the front-runners Brian Jean and Jason Kenney have both decided to dust off that old favourite prairie bogeyman, equalization.
Both Jean and Kenney frequently characterize the federal program as being unfair to Albertans, and regularly imply that Alberta would be in much better shape economically were it not for equalization. Both have now made a referendum on equalization a central part of their platforms, vowing to use the results of such a referendum as leverage in negotiating with the federal government once the equalization program comes up for renewal in 2019.
Kenney has gone so far as to suggest that he would use a 20 year-old Supreme Court of Canada reference, written in response to the possibility of Quebecers voting to secede from Canada, to force the feds to the negotiating table on equalization.
The problem with equalization that they both point to is the federal government’s use of natural resource revenues in its calculation of a province’s fiscal capacity. It is that fiscal capacity calculation that determines if a province receives equalization payments from the feds, and how much. Both Jean and Kenney contend that it’s not fair that Alberta’s natural resource revenues are included at all in that formula.
This is certainly not the first time this issue has been raised by a prairie politician seeking a bump in the polls from a population that, whether it understands how equalization works or not, is always happy to cheer on a politician picking a fight with a Liberal government in Ottawa. What Jean and Kenney are not saying, however, is that besides political expedience, neither one of them actually believes in the promises they are making.
Back in 2005 the Saskatchewan Legislature passed a unanimous motion calling on the then Liberal government of Paul Martin to adjust equalization by removing natural resource revenues from the formula. The NDP’s Lorne Calvert was Premier of Saskatchewan at the time, and the Saskatchewan Party’s Brad Wall was Leader of the Opposition.
The anti-Ottawa rhetoric and discourse around the motion was almost identical to what Kenney and Jean are putting out there today. In response to the Saskatchewan motion, Stephen Harper, then leader of the Federal Opposition, promised that a Conservative federal government would move quickly to ‘fix’ equalization should they be victorious in the 2006 election.
Harper and the Conservatives did become government after the 2006 election, and moved very quickly to break their promise on equalization, opting instead to leave the formula exactly as it was. It is important to point out that both Kenney and Jean were part of that Conservative government, and despite their current outrage at the equalization formula, neither one of them actually cared enough back then in their capacity as MPs from Alberta to do anything about it.
Especially Kenney, in his capacity first as Parliamentary Secretary to Stephen Harper, and then as a cabinet minister, certainly had the wherewithal to make equalization a priority, but he didn’t. So why now, when he has far less influence with the federal government, is he raising it as an issue?
Perhaps Brad Wall’s trajectory on the issue can shed some light on the situation. Wall became premier of Saskatchewan in 2007 shortly after Harper, with the support of Kenney and Jean, reneged on his equalization promise.
Within six months of becoming premier Wall had stopped advocating for a fairer equalization formula and even dropped a constitutional challenge against the feds on the issue that Calvert had launched just before the election. He didn’t take up the battle against equalization again until it became clear in 2015 that the Conservatives would lose government.
Wall’s, Kenney’s and Jean’s flip-flops on the issue over the last 20 year make it perfectly clear that for these folks it’s not really about any unfairness or injustice to equalization, but rather about scoring cheap political points in the same shallow and manipulative way that prairie conservatives always have—by picking a meaningless fight with a Liberal government in Ottawa.
And it is meaningless. Removing natural resource revenues from the equalization formula would have absolutely no impact on Alberta’s economy or government finances unless it was accompanied by a complete overhaul of the federal tax system. All it would accomplish is damage to the economies and government finances of the provinces that currently receive transfer payments.
Is that the kind of spiteful screw-you attitude towards other Canadians that Albertans should be applauding from their politicians?
Albertans should be insulted by the blatant manipulation that Kenney and Jean are subjecting them to on this issue. It’s not about fairness. It’s not about justice. And it’s certainly not about protecting Alberta and Albertans. It’s simply about manipulating Albertans’ dual hatred of Liberals and Ottawa for the sake of politics, and it is truly shameful.