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Alberta’s proposed equalization referendum is a $1.4M shiny object

If passed, the referendum ultimately will change nothing for Alberta and will cost us over a million dollars in the process.

Last week, the Alberta government announced that Jason Kenney, Alberta’s premier, would introduce a motion in the provincial legislature to hold a referendum on equalization.

If passed, the motion would allow for the inclusion of a referendum on the ballot box during this October’s municipal election.

According to the announcement, the question asked in the referendum will be:

“Should Section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 –Parliament and the Government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments – be removed from the Constitution?”

So what does section 36(2) of the constitution say?

Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

So, if I understand this correctly, Jason Kenney wants the constitution to no longer explicitly state that the federal government is committed to making equalization payments so that provinces can ensure they have adequate levels of public services.

I mean, the government could still be committed to this ideal; it’s just that if removed, it’ll no longer be enshrined in the constitution. And that mean subsequent governments can cancel equalization payments at will.

So, will a referendum remove this section of the constitution? Well, not really.

Even if the referendum results in a majority of voters indicating that they want to remove it, there’s still a hurdle to overcome—a pretty big one.

According to section 38 of the constitution, amending the document requires resolutions from 3 bodies:

  1. Senate
  2. House of Commons
  3. Legislative assemblies from 2/3 of the provinces, who collectively represent at least 50% of the population of the 10 provinces

And how likely is it that a senate with a minority conservative caucus and a House of Commons with conservatives holding a minority of seats would vote in favour of a resolution to authorize such a motion?

As far as provinces go, here are the provinces that won’t be receiving equalization payments during the 2021–2022 budget year:

  • Alberta
  • British Columbia
  • Newfoundland and Labrador
  • Ontario
  • Saskatchewan

Those provinces together make up more than 68.7% of the population of the 10 provinces, so they meet that threshold. However, they don’t comprise 2/3 of the provinces; they’re only 1/2 of the provinces.

Even then, between 2012 and 2019, Ontario received equalization payments, so it’s not clear that they’d be so quick to make getting them in the future riskier.

But assuming Ontario—and all the other 4—is on board, they’d still need 2 more provinces, but all the rest receive equalization payments. So, that seems unlikely.

Plus, why the focus on removing section 36(2) from the constitution? Why remove the government’s constitutional commitment to equalization? If if the referendum passes and they get all the required support, it still wouldn’t necessarily stop equalization.

Removing section 36(2) doesn’t stop equalization per se: it just stops the government from being constitutionally committed to it. The federal government will still be free to continue with equalization payments if it wanted to.

Finally, why not focus a referendum on changing the equalization formula instead, something that isn’t enshrined in the constitution?

Removing section 36(2) from the constitution won’t necessarily change anything for Alberta, but adjusting the equalization formula could potentially change things for Alberta.

So, in reality, this will be nothing more than show. And a pretty pricey show, too:

It’ll cost over a million dollars to hold a referendum that’s ultimately meaningless.

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By Kim Siever

I live in Lethbridge with my spouse and 4 of our 6 children. I’m a writer, focusing on political news, social issues, and the occasional poem. My politics are radically left.

I’m also dichotomally Mormon. And I’m a functional vegetarian: I have a blog post about that somewhere around here. My pronouns are he/him, and I’m queer.

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