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OPINION | 'Fair Deal' report foreshadows a tumultuous future for Alberta

The Fair Deal report all-but guarantees that Alberta will spend the next few years picking fights with the federal government, engaging in never-ending debates over equalization, launching expensive and meaningless referendums, and blaming others for all the problems.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 10, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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To read the "Fair Deal" panel's report is to gaze into a crystal ball.

This is your future, Alberta.

It's a future where we'll be picking fights with the federal government, pitting Alberta against Canada, embroiling Albertans in never-ending debates over equalization, launching expensive and meaningless referendums and blaming others for all our problems.

Come to think of it, this crystal ball looks more like a snow globe. We are headed into a blizzard of conflict, resentment and frustration.

Among other things, the government-appointed Fair Deal panel recommends Alberta create its own provincial police force, hold a referendum on scrapping the federal equalization program, and hold a referendum to pull out of the Canada Pension Plan.

Firing the RCMP and setting up an Alberta police force could prove to be expensive. The federal government currently pays $112 million a year toward the RCMP in Alberta. As the panel acknowledges in its report, that federal funding "would have to be fully or partially absorbed by the province and municipalities."

Premier Jason Kenney has expressed sympathy for a provincial police force, saying it would be more attuned to Alberta's needs than the Ottawa-based RCMP. But he's not making a decision on it yet. So, we'll be living with this question mark over our heads for some time.

Same with the argument for a provincial pension plan.

A problem that doesn't exist

Pulling out of the CPP and setting up an Alberta Pension Plan would be expensive, complicated and solve a problem that doesn't exist.

Kenney argues a provincial pension plan would save money because Alberta has a young population that's propping up the pensions of older Canadians elsewhere. Yes, but what happens when Alberta's population ages and the province is on its own to cover pension liabilities, like Quebec? Speaking of which, Kenney says Quebec has its own pension plan and it's insulting to say Alberta couldn't run its own.

Yes, but Quebec set up its own pension plan in 1966, one year after the CPP was created. Quebec didn't opt out of the current CPP. No province has.

When former Alberta premier Ralph Klein investigated the idea two decades ago, he rejected it as costly and unnecessary.

But never mind all that. Because of the Fair Deal report, we'll now find ourselves embroiled in an argument over a provincial pension plan for the next year or so.

Then there's the ridiculous notion of a referendum on scrapping the federal equalization program, a vote that Kenney has committed to hold perhaps in conjunction with municipal elections in 2021.

At this point, we're looking not into a crystal ball but into the rearview mirror. Alberta has been grumbling about the federal equalization program for decades, largely because most people don't understand how it works and Alberta politicians since the days of Ralph Klein have happily preyed on that confusion.

The equalization program is designed to help poorer provinces provide a level of service comparable to other provinces. It is enshrined in the Constitution. Alberta cannot unilaterally scrap or opt out of the equalization program.

Let's be clear: Alberta does not send equalization money to Quebec or Ottawa, despite what Alberta politicians imply or outright allege. The equalization program is a federal program paid for by federal taxes. Ottawa uses taxes collected from across the country to fund things such as the armed forces, employment insurance, Old Age Security, and equalization.

You could certainly make an argument to modify the equalization formula. But scrapping it is not possible without a Constitutional change. Anyway, even if the equalization program was ended tomorrow, Alberta would not get to keep any extra money.

Ottawa would simply collect its taxes as usual and spend it on federal programs. (Without equalization Ottawa would have excess money and, knowing the federal government, would likely spend that on programs to, let's say, help poorer provinces provide a level of service comparable to other provinces.)

Exercise in futility

Holding a provincewide referendum on the federal, Constitutionally protected equalization program is an exercise in futility. But it will provide Kenney with an opportunity to inflame public opinion in Alberta against the federal Liberal government while distracting from home-based problems, namely a troubled energy-reliant economy and a ballooning deficit.

We're in for months, probably years, of divisive arguments and partisan politics.

And not just between those who agree or disagree with the Fair Deal report. It's shaping up to be an argument among panel members themselves.

On Thursday, panel member Drew Barnes, a UCP MLA, issued a letter — sort of a mini-minority report — saying the report didn't go far enough. He's calling for Alberta to create a provincial constitution, collect its own taxes and push for Senate reform.

And more.

"We should be clear with Ottawa and the other provinces that if the people of Alberta vote for a fair deal of constitutional equality within confederation, but these proposals are rejected, that Albertans will be given the opportunity to vote on their independence," wrote Barnes.

Yes, we now have a government member talking about separation.

That earned him a rebuke from fellow panel member, Donna Kennedy-Glans, who said Barnes' contrarian letter "breaks the trust of people on the panel who reached consensus."

She accused him of playing partisan games.

Their dispute broke out just 24 hours after the Fair Deal report was released.

It is the shape of things to come.

Welcome to your future, Alberta.

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