Fair Deal panel report underlines challenges for Kenney when rhetoric meets reality
Recent poll shows most Albertans don’t support separation or getting rid of the RCMP or CPP
EDITOR'S NOTE: CBC News and The Road Ahead commissioned this public opinion research in May as the lockdown in Alberta was eased. It follows similar research conducted in March, just as the social and economic shock of COVID-19 was becoming apparent. As with all polls, this one is a snapshot in time.
This analysis is one in a series of articles to come out of this research. You can find links to the previous stories at the bottom of this one. More stories are to follow.
At the time, it seemed like a shrewd political move.
A so-called "fair deal" panel aimed at getting a better piece of the Canadian pie for a recession-savaged Alberta.
"Albertans have been working for Ottawa for too long," declared Alberta Premier Jason Kenney in his keynote address to close the Manning Conference last November.
"It's time for Ottawa to start working for us … they must stop taking us for granted," Kenney added.
And in announcing the results on Wednesday of the panel charged with considering ways Alberta could end up with more leverage with the federal government, Kenney went to great lengths to stress he's still determined to get a better deal for the prairie province, despite the worldwide COVID-19 health crisis and the economic carnage the pandemic has left in its wake.
"Albertans are proud to contribute to their fellow Canadians when times are good here, but bad elsewhere," Kenney said from the legislature in Edmonton on Wednesday, responding to the Fair Deal panel's 25 recommendations.
"What Albertans cannot and will not accept is governments across the country benefiting from our wealth and resources while seeking to block and impair our development of that wealth and those resources," he added.
Kenney was definitive about one major recommendation: Albertans will go to the polls next year to vote on the future of equalization. That's no surprise. The United Conservative Party (UCP) promised a referendum on equalization in last year's election campaign.
But the UCP premier said more study is required to evaluate the much-trumpeted ideas — and Fair Deal Panel recommendations — of scrapping the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) for an Alberta retirement saving plan and banishing the RCMP in favour of an independent provincial police force.
Already, supporters of Alberta separation have signalled their disappointment, declaring Kenney's "'Fair Deal' keeps Ottawa firmly in control."
But recent polling shows an overwhelming majority of Albertans don't support separation or getting rid of the RCMP or CPP.
Vast majority of Albertans not so keen on separation
While ticking up five points since March, only 30 per cent of Albertans say the province would be better off if it separated from Canada, according to a CBC News Road Ahead poll.
"There is support out there, but it's less than majority support," says Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown, who conducts polling research for CBC News.
"Each idea has far from majority support," she stressed.
CBC News didn't ask about equalization in its most recent polling, but a 2018 poll found that 70 per cent of Albertans thought Canada's system of equalization payments was unfair to Albertans.
"I don't think most Albertans reject the concept of equalization," says Brown. "They just reject how equalization is playing out under current formulas."
As for the other proposed "Fair Deal" fixes to policing and pensions, those ideas, like separation, also remain unpopular with a lot of Albertans.
While Wexit became the rallying cry of disenchanted Albertans last fall, demands for more autonomy don't appear to have the same steam now — and Albertans don't favour going it alone on policing and pensions.
Notably, only 31 per cent of Albertans, according to a CBC News poll conducted in March, supported setting up an autonomous provincial police force. Fewer than four in ten Albertans liked the idea of scrapping CPP in favour of an Alberta pension plan. Just 34 per cent of people in the province want an independent Alberta tax collection agency.
The Fair Deal panel's own research did not ask the public if they support any of the measures. They only asked if the public believed a measure would help improve Alberta's place in the federation. Even in that watered-down form, the panel found only muted agreement with many of the measures. For example, only 42 per cent of respondents said they believed an Alberta Pension Plan would make things better for the province.
"Even in their effort to hear from people sympathetic to these ideas," emphasizes Brown, "they were hard-pressed to get a majority of people to agree to any of these individual ideas."
CBC News' survey in May, not surprisingly, found many UCP supporters are fans of more autonomy. But a more sophisticated statistical analysis found that ideology and attachment to Alberta over Canada are, in fact, the best predictors of support for separation. Right-leaning members of the Alberta Party, who identify more with Alberta than Canada, for instance, are also likely to support separating from Canada.
While it's reductionist to suggest all Alberta separatists vote UCP, Kenney has a lot of supporters who do like the sound of less Ottawa and more Alberta.
Kenney and the UCP began successfully animating separatist feelings in Alberta long before last fall's federal election made their repercussions apparent to the rest of Canada.
Sowing the rhetorical seeds of Alberta discontent
Kenney not only successfully campaigned on jobs, economy and pipelines in the 2019 provincial campaign that swept him to office, the veteran federal cabinet minister also astutely cast himself as a populist defender of Alberta.
"He's a very enormously skilled politician," says Mount Royal University political communication professor David Taras, "but part of his skill has been to identify enemies, know their weak spots, know where the public is, and to be able to play that really well, and eloquently."
No doubt, Kenney's repeated rhetoric about Alberta's raw deal in the Canadian federation likely triggered optimism among those who thought solving Alberta's economic woes rested with more autonomy from Ottawa.
But as the UCP government released the long-awaited Fair Deal panel report on Wednesday, reality clashed with the government's initial optimistic rhetoric. The pandemic may have redrawn the political landscape.
Rhetoric vs. reality on separation
Managing the expectations of Albertans who do support more autonomy will be tough, when so many Albertans seem dead set against the UCP's specific pitches aimed at gaining more autonomy, such as those concerning policing and pensions.
Historically, conservative parties in Canada have problems with warring ideological factions when they assume power.
The centrist and right-wing factions unite to win power — but often engage in protracted ideological battles over policy when in government.
"Once they are in power," stresses data scientist John Santos, with Janet Brown Opinion Research, "they can't please everyone."
And people on the right side of the ideological spectrum are watching.
After the report's release on Wednesday, Derek Fildebrandt, the former Wildrose MLA turned UCP member who founded the Freedom Conservative Party and now edits the Western Standard, declared "if Albertans were expecting their government to do battle with Ottawa, well, they got dressed up for nothing."
The long-time conservative and former Canadian Taxpayers Federation spokesperson wrote that "moderates" within the UCP had won, calling the panel's report "decidedly lukewarm."
UCP MLA Drew Barnes, who represents Cypress-Medicine Hat in the legislature and was a member of the Fair Deal panel, went further than his leader, calling on the premier in an open letter to hold a referendum on equalization in six months and move to have Alberta collect its own provincial and federal personal and corporate income taxes.
Containing the autonomous desires of UCP supporters will test Kenney.
"Maybe, Kenney isn't going to be able to deliver on his more radical rhetoric," says Santos.
"The premier can't afford to ignore these voices, but at the same time, these voices don't represent a majority of Albertans," adds pollster Janet Brown.
But maybe there's another front shaping up in Kenney's battle with Ottawa, another way to deliver on his autonomy pledges.
Opening a new front in the assault on Ottawa
Kenney, not surprisingly, toned down the Ottawa bashing during the height of the pandemic but in recent weeks he's dialled it back up again and aimed it in a different direction.
The UCP government is "seriously considering" mounting a legal challenge to Ottawa's gun ban.
And the UCP happily accepted the Fair Deal panel's plan to appoint an independent Chief Firearms Officer for Alberta.
Court challenges and law and order policy may be the new front in Kenney's ongoing battle with Ottawa.
Duane Bratt says we should watch how the UCP deals with the Fair Deal panel's recommendations surrounding scrapping the Mounties in favour of a provincial police force.
That might appease supporters of more autonomy, especially those in rural Alberta, he suggests.
"I think they are going to go ahead with the police," predicts Bratt. "There's enough there, and it fits with the larger rural crime, gun issues."
The Fair Deal panel report concludes that creating an independent provincial police force would be cost-effective for Alberta. Bratt predicts the provincial cost would be in the ballpark of $140 million per year.
"I think Albertans would be willing to spend that sort of money for the symbolism of what it entails," says Bratt.
So, maybe that will be enough in a post-pandemic world.
Kenney's fiery rhetoric about Ottawa last fall seems like a lifetime ago now.
After all, it's hard to bash Ottawa when it's pumping so much money into Alberta to support people hard hit by the pandemic.
Our preoccupation with the pandemic has moved concerns about Alberta to the backburner for many people, says pollster Janet Brown.
The UCP hasn't given up on these ideas, she adds, but its handling of the Fair Deal panel's recommendations suggests the government knows it doesn't have the public onside with the big recommendations contained in the report yet.
But the pandemic will eventually end, and the public will turn its attention to other issues.
"Albertans' aspirations for more independence haven't gone away," warns Brown.
Data from two surveys are reported in this story. The May 2020 CBC Road Ahead survey was conducted between May 25 and June 1, 2020, by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The survey sampled 900 respondents, randomly selected from Trend Research's online panel of more than 30,000 Albertans. The sample is representative of regional, age and gender proportions in Alberta. A comparable margin of error for a study with a probabilistic sample of this size would be plus or minus 3.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.
The March 2020 survey was conducted between March 2 and March 18, 2020 by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research using a hybrid methodology. This survey sampled 1,200 Albertans, randomly selected by phone, and representative along regional, age and gender factors. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger. The March survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online. Trend Research contacted people using a random list of numbers, consisting of half land lines and half cellphone numbers. Telephone numbers were dialled up to five times at five different times of day before another telephone number was added to the sample. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e. residential and personal) was 13.2 per cent.