Separation? Special interest groups? The fair deal panel approaches its final report
Premier Jason Kenney says the province will act on recommendations thoughtfully and deliberately
Alberta's "fair deal" panel was formed to explore how to strengthen the western province's place within confederation — emphasis on within.
But in the homestretch, less than a month before recommendations are due, the panel's latest online engagement includes a question on separation — a choice opposition leader Rachel Notley says stokes the fires of a fringe movement.
The original list of mandates, as announced by Premier Jason Kenney in Red Deer Alta., includes exploring things like an Alberta Pension Plan, a provincial police force and more.
Kenney said he's looking forward to the report and plans to act on the recommendations thoughtfully and deliberately — according to Alberta's timelines, not Ottawa's.
"Within those prospective reforms lie a series of measures fully to assert Alberta's autonomy within the Canadian Federation in ways that other provinces have done, to use every tool at our disposal to ensure a prosperous economic future," said Kenney.
The latest survey, however, asks Albertans a new question: "Would Alberta alone or with other Western Provinces separating from the rest of Canada help improve the province's place in the federation?"
Separation question was debated
Panel-member Donna Kennedy-Glans says it was a tough choice for the eight pastelists to decide whether to include the question, but in the end they all felt it was important.
"Everywhere that we went in the province, every town hall, somebody would raise the question of separation," Kennedy-Glans said.
"So it is something we've heard. Our mandate is to work within Confederation. It is not to propose or support a separatist agenda. But we want it to reflect the fact that we were listening to people."
Along with public consultation, Kennedy-Glans said the panelists are meeting with special interest groups and experts to round out what they learn. She said these include think-tanks like the Pembina Institute, business groups, community groups and more.
Panel has had hundreds of private meetings
While separatist groups have been in touch, they are not on the panel's meeting calendar.
"We decided that it probably didn't make sense for us to sit down with them," she said. "Our mandate is not to recommend anything. That doesn't envision Alberta within Confederation."
Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt sees no problem with including the question.
"I think one of the purposes of a fair deal panel was to change the conversation, from separatism to greater autonomy inside of Canada," Bratt said. "So it makes sense to have the separatism question on there."
Notley, the NDP leader, disagrees.
In a statement, she wrote the province is hurting, people continue to lose jobs and the government has moved funding to already profitable corporations.
"This premier is intentionally stoking the fires of separation in order to distract from his own economic failures," Notley wrote.
"He is attacking our pensions, our health care, our education, and our public services. This is not what Albertans need right now. We need a premier who will do the job he was elected to do, and focus on getting people back to work."
While Bratt saw the logic of including a question on separation, he did take issue with some aspects of the survey, including lumping together the establishment of different hypothetical institutions in one question.
"Based on the news reports I've seen at the town halls there may be support for the police force, some support for tax collection, but I'm not hearing a lot of support for the pension plan," he said. "What if you support an Alberta police force, but you don't support a pension plan? How do you answer that?"
By the numbers
- The panel heard from 2,500 people directly at town halls.
- 4,000 people responded to an early survey.
- The latest survey has already had 17,000 responses and closes on March 15th
The eight-member panel includes former Reform Party leader Preston Manning and Stephen Lougheed, the son of former premier Peter Lougheed.
It's chaired by Oryssia Lennie, who was previously the deputy minister of Western Economic Diversification Canada.
The panel is expected to submit recommendations to the government by March 31. The government says any bold proposals would need to be approved by Albertans through a referendum.