Alberta’s Equalization Referendum: Meaningless but Potentially Dangerous

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Jason Kenney’s latest anti-Ottawa gambit, the so-called “referendum” on equalization, is as pointless as his much-mocked war room and his $3.5 million inquiry into imaginary foreign-funded anti-Alberta activities. Even the Globe and Mail called the premier’s antics a “farce”.[i]

But there is really nothing amusing about a premier who deliberately misleads the people he represents. Luckily it appears both the war room and the public inquiry have backfired. However it is not clear that the same can be said about the referendum, which is a much more serious potential problem.

Countless experts have pointed out all the many reasons why this idea made no sense, but Kenney persevered. And in this case the stakes are higher. Here the enemy is not an imaginary cabal of rich American environmentalists. Here the enemy is the federal government, have-not provinces and a fundamental pillar of the welfare state. A pillar considered so important to Canadian identity that it was entrenched in the constitution. By launching this latest attack, therefore, Kenney has potentially heightened regional discord and western alienation, already a threat to national unity.

However it may be that most Albertans are on to him. Despite his efforts to paint the referendum results as a solid victory, giving him the moral authority to continue his attacks, the numbers tell a different tale. Yes, 68% of those who voted supported his cause, but only 38% of Albertans even bothered to cast a ballot on the question. In short, barely 25% of Albertans agreed with him, even after he had watered down what the referendum really meant as the day of the vote approached and he began to worry that he might lose.   

Still, 25% reflects a significant portion of the population that is not happy with the status quo. The question is what to do about it. Kenney has already shown that he will simply carry on down the same destructive path. His response to the new Liberal cabinet ministers for the environment and natural resources was to say they were “problematic.” This is someone whose head is firmly buried in the sand. A responsible premier would have read the writing on the wall about the oil and gas industry years ago. A responsible premier would have engaged in positive negotiations with the federal government for compensation, retraining, and investment in alternative research and other programs to aid displaced workers, rather than launching an expensive and failed legal challenge to the federal government’s climate change plan. A responsible premier would start to consider economic strategies to leverage provincial advantages. Albertans must be wondering where they can find another Peter Lougheed.     

[i] Editorial. January 25, 2021.