Fair Deal wave re­ally amounts to a dis­trac­tion

Main merit lies in de­rail­ing silly idea of sep­a­ratism

Calgary Herald - - OPINION - ROB BREAKENRID­GE “Af­ter­noons with Rob Breakenrid­ge” airs week­days 12:30-3:30 p.m. on 770 CHQR rob.breakenrid­ge@corusent.com Twit­ter.com/@rob­break­en­ridge

Af­ter Premier Ja­son Ken­ney’s un­equiv­o­cal re­jec­tion Fri­day of the idea of Al­berta sep­a­ratism as ei­ther a goal or a bar­gain­ing tac­tic, I think it’s fair to put to rest the idea that his fo­cus on a “fair deal” is some­how pan­der­ing to sep­a­ratists.

It’s more likely the premier is try­ing to take the wind out of the sails of any would-be sep­a­ratist move­ment. Ken­ney is cer­tainly cor­rect when he notes the po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty and in­sta­bil­ity that an ac­tive sep­a­ratist move­ment cre­ates, as ev­i­denced in Que­bec. The up­heaval from an in­de­pen­dence vote or an at­tempted se­ces­sion is far worse.

But many of the rec­om­men­da­tions in the Fair Deal Panel re­port, which was re­leased ear­lier in the week, do lit­tle to ad­dress Al­berta’s cur­rent plight. The main rec­om­men­da­tion — hold­ing a ref­er­en­dum on equal­iza­tion — seems es­pe­cially point­less.

So that cre­ates a bit of a Catch-22: Ei­ther we waste time and money hold­ing this ref­er­en­dum and in­ves­ti­gat­ing some of these other ideas, or we em­bolden those who want an even more ag­gres­sive pos­ture on this quixotic quest, thus cre­at­ing the very prob­lems the premier warned about.

Equal­iza­tion seems to be at the centre of this whole con­ver­sa­tion about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Al­berta and Ot­tawa. Per­haps a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how this pro­gram ac­tu­ally works would help.

The panel’s re­port ini­tially does a com­mend­able job in try­ing to ex­plain it. As the re­port notes, “equal­iza­tion is fi­nanced en­tirely from the fed­eral govern­ment’s gen­eral rev­enues” and “pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments do not con­trib­ute fi­nan­cially to this pro­gram.”

Yet the re­port then goes on to list Al­berta’s “con­tri­bu­tions to Equal­iza­tion,” in­clud­ing, for ex­am­ple, $17.2 bil­lion in 2018. But let’s be clear: that num­ber rep­re­sents the dif­fer­ence be­tween the amount of fed­eral tax rev­enue col­lected in Al­berta and the amount of fed­eral spend­ing in Al­berta. It is not spe­cific to equal­iza­tion and, in fact, has noth­ing at all to do with equal­iza­tion. Chang­ing the pro­gram would not have any im­pact on that gap what­so­ever.

(And if the ex­is­tence of that gap is some­how an ar­gu­ment for sep­a­ratism, then it’s an ar­gu­ment for Cal­gary separat­ing from Al­berta and for Roxboro or Bri­tan­nia separat­ing from Cal­gary.)

The panel re­port then seems to con­cede this point, but notes that we could push for changes to the “Fis­cal Sta­bi­liza­tion Fund,” which is de­scribed as a “com­po­nent of equal­iza­tion.” Ex­cept that the Fis­cal Sta­bi­liza­tion Pro­gram (there is no “fund”) is sep­a­rate from the equal­iza­tion pro­gram.

Still, though, the premier’s com­mit­ment to hold­ing this ref­er­en­dum seems al­most rea­son­able when con­trasted with those who wish to hold this vote as quickly as pos­si­ble and those who naively think that we can uni­lat­er­ally change the Con­sti­tu­tion and bring about equal­iza­tion’s demise (which, again, wouldn’t mean any money com­ing to Al­berta or stay­ing in Al­berta).

Per­haps the wis­est ad­vice in the Fair Deal Panel re­port is for Al­berta to steer clear for now of the idea of col­lect­ing our own taxes. The idea of Al­berta set­ting up its own tax col­lec­tion agency has to be one of the strangest and sil­li­est ideas to come out of this whole “fair deal” con­ver­sa­tion. We would be spend­ing bil­lions of dol­lars to cre­ate and sus­tain such a bu­reau­cracy and gain noth­ing in re­turn. The idea that we could some­how hold fed­eral tax rev­enue hostage is such an in­sane fan­tasy that it’s hard to take its pro­po­nents se­ri­ously.

There are some as­pects of this re­port that might merit some con­sid­er­a­tion at some point, in­clud­ing the idea of a pro­vin­cial pen­sion plan or a pro­vin­cial po­lice force. But given our dis­turbingly low lev­els of em­ploy­ment and eco­nomic growth and the un­cer­tain­ties of our post-pan­demic fu­ture, such ideas re­ally don’t seem like a pri­or­ity right now.

De­fus­ing a po­ten­tial Al­berta sep­a­ratist move­ment is a laud­able goal. That doesn’t change the fact that much of this “fair deal” push is a costly dis­trac­tion from much more press­ing mat­ters.

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