This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.
You know the Alberta government is in an awkward spot when cabinet ministers attend a news conference to sheepishly announce what they won’t be doing.
On Thursday, we had Finance Minister Travis Toews explaining why he won’t be holding a referendum this October on setting up an Alberta pension plan and Justice Minister Kaycee Madu explaining why he won’t be holding a vote on whether to set up an Alberta police force.
“We need to take the time needed to conduct additional study,” Madu said in a quote that speaks for both ministries.
The government never overtly promised a referendum on either of these issues this year but it had committed to one day holding votes on both.
Realizing he had to tamp down expectations, especially among Conservatives who want “More Alberta, Less Ottawa,” Premier Jason Kenney called the news conference to explain why “More Alberta” will have to wait.
However, simply holding a news conference to announce what they won’t be doing would look odd, to say the least, so Kenney performed a little bit of political misdirection by announcing something new: the government will hold a referendum on daylight saving time.
“We think it’s a great opportunity for Albertans to speak to an issue that will affect them in a very direct way,” said Kenney, pointing to an increasing number of jurisdictions in North America that are moving to a system where the clocks stay the same year round rather than being set an hour ahead in March and an hour behind in November.
Kenney also reaffirmed a commitment to hold a referendum on the federal equalization system and a vote to elect senators — all in conjunction with the municipal elections on Oct. 18.
That has irritated civic leaders like Barry Morishita, president of the the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, who is afraid “there will be so much ‘noise’ swirling around in Alberta’s political environment in August and September that it will be very difficult for everyone to remain focused on local issues during this year’s municipal elections.”
But Kenney isn’t focused on local issues. He’s preoccupied on his own issues, namely winning back disgruntled Conservatives, particularly those who want him to go to war with the federal Liberal government.
Ergo the symbolic senate elections. In Canada, senators are appointed by an independent panel, not elected, as Prime Minister Trudeau pointed out while visiting Calgary last week.
But Kenney is trying to rile up anti-Ottawa sentiment.
And the vote to scrap the federal equalization program is not just symbolic but cynically so, reinforcing a false narrative that the federal government raids the Alberta treasury to support supposedly ne’er-do-well provinces like Quebec.
The equalization program is protected by the Constitution and supported by federal tax dollars collected from all Canadians.
And speaking of awkwardness, the equalization formula that Kenney is railing against now is one that was implemented when he was a federal cabinet minister in the Stephen Harper government.
Kenney’s rhetorical war with Ottawa is aimed at rallying Albertans around his battle standard. Kenney is a politician more at ease with making enemies than allies.
After having to mute himself during the pandemic when Alberta was pleading with Ottawa for more aid, Kenney is now clearing his throat by going on the attack against Trudeau, especially now that we expect a federal election to be called any minute.
Pensions and policing
Then there’s the awkward fact that plans for a provincial police force and pension plan are exceptionally complicated, as ministers Toews and Madu acknowledged at Thursday’s news conference.
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 province’s “fair deal” panel acknowledged in its report last year, the federal funding “would have to be fully or partially absorbed by the province and municipalities.”
Kenney has suggested that because large municipalities already have their own police forces, any referendum might be held only for voters in rural areas. That kind of selective ballot might be fair if those rural voters were the only ones paying for a new provincial police force. But you’d have to think a provincial force would be funded by all taxpayers so it’d only be fair to include everyone in the vote.
Pulling out of the Canada Pension Plan and setting up an Alberta Pension Plan would be expensive, complicated and solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Kenney has said Quebec has its own pension plan and it is insulting to say Alberta couldn’t run its own.
However, 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.
So, referendums on a pension plan and police force will have to wait.
That means Albertans will be casting ballots this fall on two symbolic but powerless issues: senators and equalization.
Ironically, after Kenney promised Albertans he’d dramatically overhaul Alberta-federal relations, the only vote that will actually make a difference this fall is whether Albertans are tired of losing an hour’s sleep in March.