Alberta referendum sheds light on struggling premier

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Alberta Prime Minister Jason Kenney speaks at a press conference after meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 10, 2019. REUTERS / Blair Gable / File Photo

CALGARY, Alta., Oct. 18 (Reuters) – Alberta held a referendum on Monday to ask whether Canada should remove its commitment to redistribute wealth among provinces from its constitution, but the vote Prime Minister Jason Kenney envisioned as a tool to leverage Ottawa could backfire on the deeply unpopular leader.

The non-binding referendum on equalization payments fulfills Kenney’s 2019 election promise to stand up for Canada’s major oil-producing province. But it comes as Alberta relies on help from other jurisdictions to tackle a deadly fourth wave of COVID-19 and Kenney faces calls to step down for his handling of the pandemic. Read more

The vote draws on a refrain among key supporters of Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) – that Alberta, whose tar sands make Canada the world’s fourth-largest producer of crude, is unfairly treated by other provinces despite the fact that ‘it helps fuel the Canadian economy.

Equalization payments are enshrined in the Canadian constitution as a means of addressing fiscal disparities between the 10 provinces. This is a long-standing grievance in Alberta, and opposition has grown in recent years as volatile oil prices rocked the provincial economy.

Critics say it is unfair that Alberta contributes billions of dollars to equalization every year, while some provincial governments benefiting from the system oppose the development of crude export pipelines that increase government revenues. Alberta.

A poll conducted last week by the University of Alberta showed that 43% of Albertans support removing equalization from the constitution. But the same poll showed the “no” camp was gaining ground, and some political scientists warn that Kenney’s unpopularity means the referendum could turn into a proxy vote on his leadership.

“This referendum now puts Kenney’s leadership on the line. He has a lot to lose,” said Jared Wesley, professor of political science at the University of Alberta.

Kenney faces a leadership review in the spring, which was brought forward to next fall to avoid revolt within the UCP caucus. Many Albertans are furious with Kenney for failing to put more stringent public health measures in place over the summer when COVID-19 cases began to increase in the western province of Canada.

In a social media post on Sunday, Kenney said a resounding “yes” to abandoning Equalization would give him a strong mandate to negotiate on behalf of Alberta, although the vote alone did not ‘will not stop equalization because it is written into the constitution.

“The referendum is a chance for Alberta to say ‘yes’ to our demand for a fair deal,” Kenney said.

The referendum question relates to municipal elections being held across Alberta, and the results will be announced on October 26.

‘BACK TO NEGOTIATIONS’

Equalization, which began as a federal program in the late 1950s, transfers federal tax money collected from “donor” provinces to those with lower revenue generating capacity than the national average.

Alberta was a recipient of Equalization in the mid-1960s, but has since been a donor and currently disburses approximately $ 11 billion to $ 12 billion Canadian per year. Four other provinces are currently donors, but among them only Saskatchewan, another resource-rich and conservative-leaning western province, has publicly considered a referendum on the issue.

The referendum is a key part of Kenney’s “Fight Back” strategy, in which he promised voters he would stand up for Alberta’s oil and gas industry, the backbone of the provincial economy.

“He is using the constitution as a way back into negotiations over oil and gas legislation that Alberta is not happy with,” said Duane Bratt, professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

While the “yes” side is expected to win Monday’s vote, what happens next will depend on how other Canadian prime ministers and the federal government negotiate with Alberta.

One of the risks for Kenney is that he may win the referendum but still fail to secure concessions from the rest of Canada, which could rekindle calls from some right-wing Albertans for the province to leave the federation. , said Bratt.

Part of the reason Kenney first promised the referendum was to appease the conservative right-wing separatist movement that may lose support from the UCP.

“This is about generating anger in Alberta and I don’t think he has fully thought through all of the consequences of that,” added Bratt.

Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Peter Cooney

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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