Referendums have been the source of high anxiety and popular uprisings in recent years. Whether they’re a truly democratic way to make vital decisions that best serve the public interest is a matter of great debate.
However, there really should be no debate – nine times out of 10, they’re a bad idea.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney promised during the 2019 provincial election campaign to hold several referendums – including one to get a mandate to fight with Ottawa over changes to equalization payments and maybe one if his government decides it makes financial sense to abandon the Canada Pension Plan.
Let’s deal with that second question first, because it’s a no-brainer. Albertans may not like Ottawa, but the real question is whether they should trust Alberta to manage a pension plan.
The one word answer: AIMCo. That’s the Alberta Investment Management Corp., the public-sector money manager that infamously lost $2.1 billion this year in an investment strategy linked to market volatility.
If Albertans are worried about having enough money to retire on, then Ottawa’s team looks like a safer bet.
Now let’s go back to the first question: Will holding a referendum on equalization be an effective way to pressure Ottawa to rewrite the equalization formula?
The answer is almost certainly not.
There are a number of factors at play. The first is that 0.00001 per cent of the public actually understands how equalization works. You think that Ottawa takes all of Alberta’s money and gives it to Quebec because we’ve been an oil-rich province?
That’s the simple narrative that’s been advanced, but it’s not even close to the complex factors and mechanisms behind equalization.
So Kenney’s government will be asking people to vote on something they don’t understand.
And if I ask whether you feel you’re taxed too much, what do you suppose the answer will be?
The vast majority are going to say, “Hell yes!”
But that proves nothing. Because if you’re holding a referendum with a question that points to a predetermined outcome, then the value of the vote is just about zero. A vote that doesn’t ask a thoughtful question won’t give our premier a fresh mandate to pressure anyone. Waste of time.
That’s why then-prime minister Jean Chretien fought so hard to ensure a thoughtful question was put to the people of Quebec during the second sovereignty referendum in 1995. The result was a question that put conditions and context into the discussion. It read: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”
See the difference?
So for a rough equivalent of a such a question, Alberta’s referendum question on equalization would have to incorporate a little history, a basic understanding of the program itself and at least at hint at the implications of voting for change.
One of the other implications of voting in such a referendum is whether it could bring about meaningful change. Polls already tell us that the majority of Albertans think we’re getting a raw deal from Ottawa. Do we need a referendum to affirm this?
I would argue the Alberta government has all the information it needs if it’s going to try to appeal to the rest of Canada for a fairer equalization deal.
Another costly vote does nothing to reinforce the government’s mandate. After all, the ruling United Conservative Party government was elected on a platform of taking on Ottawa. It doesn’t need to have that mandate affirmed.
There are two things referendums can do for this government: demonstrate that it will live up to its election promise to hold them and – perhaps an unintended consequence – give frustrated Albertans a chance to voice their grievances to the rest of the nation.
So think of referendums as a form of cathartic relief. At least that will have felt worthwhile.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.