The Government of Alberta has released the report of the Fair Deal Panel.
The panel was commissioned by Premier Jason Kenney after the 2019 federal election in which saw no federal government representation in Alberta growing anger towards Ottawa among many Albertans and increased separatist sentiment among some. With the express instruction to talk to Albertans and gauge their views on a myriad of ideas to give the province more autonomy within Canada the Panel spoke with 40,000+ Albertans over several months of consultation.
The highest profile parts of the Panel’s Report are the recommendations on a referendum on Alberta’s role in federal equalization, the planning and implementation of an Alberta Pension Plan (withdrawing from the CPP) and the creation an Alberta Police Service. There were discussions around the idea of a provincial tax agency, but the panel recommended making no changes at this time suggesting instead that Alberta watch how the province of Quebec fairs with a similar proposal.
What is obvious is that the Fair Deal Report envisions new relationships with our federal and provincial partners; and signals Albertans’ desire to have more say in our economic future. Premier Kenney and his cabinet have considerable flexibility in what comes next recognizing that most (if not all) of the Panel’s recommendations will require considerable study and potentially years to implement. The Kenney team will carefully gauge the implications for the economy, investment, business, jobs and the day-to-day ability of Albertans to make choices about their own lives and communities. Despite the loud social media hyperbole, ideology will not be allowed to outweigh practical consequences for Albertans.
Kenney favors the higher profile recommendations such as pursuing greater autonomy within Canada, but after the COVID 19 period has passed. The Panel has recommended a referendum on the equalization question; and the Premier has said that a split from the Canada Pension Plan in favour of an Alberta model would also be put to a ballot for Albertans. Much of the province has contracted the RCMP as their local police force, the recommendation for an Alberta Police Service will require significant examination into start-up costs, ongoing costs and operating logistics in today’s modern policing world, though some of that work had already been in final stages in the Ralph Klein era.
From a business vantage point, any new barriers, real or perceived, between Alberta and the rest of Canada will not be helpful to our economy; Premier Kenney made it clear that he is keenly aware of such consequences. The Panel recommends collaborating with the other provinces in areas such as enforcing internal free trade; securing market access measures – getting product to tidewater to facilitate international trade; implementing regional development strategies; and a provincial model on GHG emissions. These elements are deemed imperative to remove federal barriers to Alberta’s economy.
The most pertinent question after today’s announcement is how hard Premier Kenney will press to advance the Panel recommendations and the extent to which current economic conditions, and the COVID-19 pandemic afford Kenney and his team the opportunity to pick and choose the most impactful to the day-to-day lives of Albertans and to leave others behind.
The panel recommends that the Government of Alberta:
- Press strenuously for the removal of the current constraints on the Fiscal Stabilization Program, which prevent Albertans from receiving a $2.4 billion equalization rebate.
- Proceed with the proposed referendum on equalization, asking a clear question along the lines of: “Do you support the removal of Section 36, which deals with the principle of equalization, from the Constitution Act, 1982?”
Other steps to secure a fair deal that require support and cooperation from other provincial governments and the federal government include:
- Collaborate with other jurisdictions to reduce trade barriers within Canada and pressure the federal government to enforce free trade in Canada.
- Collaborate with other jurisdictions and other stakeholders to secure cross-border rights of way and create unobstructed corridors within Canada to tidewater and world markets.
- Collaborate with other jurisdictions to design and advance regional strategies for northern development; pressure the federal government to implement those strategies.
- A) Support and press for the strictest possible application of the principle of representation by population in the House of Commons; and B) Work with other provinces and the federal government to democratize the Senate appointment process.
- Secure a fairer share of federal civil service opportunities and federal offices in Western Canada.
- Abolish or at least change the residency requirement for the federal courts.
- Assert more control over immigration for the economic benefit of Alberta.
- Collaborate with other provinces and industry to advance market-based approaches to environmental protection, including a reduction in GHG emissions.
- Continue to challenge federal legislation that affects provincial jurisdiction.
- Work with other provinces to secure a federal-provincial agreement prohibiting the federal government from spending, taxing, legislating, or treaty making in areas of provincial or joint jurisdiction without the consent of the affected province(s).
Unilateral steps we recommend the Government of Alberta take immediately include:
- A) Develop a comprehensive plan to create an Alberta Pension Plan and withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan; and B) Subsequently, provide Albertans the opportunity, via a referendum, to vote for or against withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and creating the Alberta Pension Plan.
- Create an Alberta Police Service to replace the RCMP.
- Appoint an Alberta Chief Firearms Officer (CFO).
- Secure a seat at the table when the federal government negotiates and implements international agreements and treaties affecting Alberta’s interests.
- Strengthen Alberta’s presence in Ottawa.
- Opt out of new federal cost-shared programs, subject to Alberta receiving full compensation.
- Resist federal intrusions into health and social programming, and do not seek to exchange cash payments for tax points at this time.
- Continue to diversify Alberta’s economy in the energy sector and beyond.
- Vigorously pursue access to markets for Alberta’s exports.
- Make no changes, at this time, to the administration of agreements that Alberta public agencies and municipalities have with the Government of Canada.
- A) Make no changes to tax collection in Alberta at this time; and B) Support Quebec in its bid to collect the federal and provincial portions of personal income taxes. If Quebec is successful, Alberta should pursue the same strategy if it is advantageous.
- Use democratic tools such as referenda and citizens’ initiatives to seek Albertans’ guidance on selected Fair Deal Panel proposals and other initiatives.
- Explore ways and means to affirm Alberta’s cultural, economic and political uniqueness in law and government policy
Opposition to the Panel’s mandate and the report’s recommendations have come from credible voices in the business, legal, academic and social policy communities. Moving forward on the recommendations will require sound and substantive replies from the Kenney team and the Panel members themselves to maintain a leadership position on the concerns and the objections. With the report hot off the press – at least for public consumption – the opposition falls into three broad categories:
- Some of the actions and desired outcomes recommended by the report will simply not happen. They are unconstitutional and telling people otherwise amounts to deliberately misleading them.
- True fiscal Conservatives cannot support separatist actions. Diminishing the province’s net financial capability and resources only hurts Albertans and takes us back in time.
- Stepping out of federal programs will disproportionately hurt vulnerable Albertans
And, as noted above, thickening the border – literally and figuratively – between Alberta and the rest of Canada will hurts investment, business operators, employees and consumers. While no one will argue that equal voice in confederation is important, making good on separatist sentiments leaves Alberta as a more isolated island than before. Premier Kenney’s unique experience could make him the right leader to amplify the voices of Albertans in a pragmatic way. His legacy could be in its infancy through this report, if he can strike the right balance with the implementation.
Authored by: Jessica Conlin, Natalie Sigalet, Darren Cunningham, Tim Moro