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FORBES: Alberta cuts hundreds of jobs while Quebec is “swimming in cash”

The fact that some provinces are “swimming in cash” and others are tightening belts has a lot to do with a system designed to reward Ottawa’s friends at our expense.

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Something is broken in our federal system when Ottawa is shoring up other provinces’ multi-billion dollar surpluses while Alberta cannot even afford to pay its own public employees. The current talks of an “equalization rebate” for Alberta are a good start in addressing this disparity.

The Alberta government plans to cut the size of government by $1.5 billion over the next four years to help balance the books. Although this cut is modest compared with the Ralph Klein budgets in the 1990s, the fact remains that public sector employers still have to tighten their belts. Alberta Health Services recently announced the loss of 500 nursing jobs over the next three years. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) estimates 6,000 jobs could be lost over the next few years.

Meanwhile, Quebec just announced that they have so much money in their provincial treasury that they will be handing much of it out to their citizens. With a provincial surplus of $8.2 billion banked for the past year, and an expected $4 billion surplus for the upcoming year, Quebec Finance Minister Eric Girard recently raised their province’s family childcare allowance, increased supplements for children with disabilities, and increased spending on healthcare and education.

An article in the Montreal Gazette summarized this joyful announcement by saying Quebec is apparently “swimming in cash.” For the thousands of Alberta families that will spend their Christmas holiday writing cover letters and handing out resumes, the contrast could not be starker.

The old chamber of the National Assembly of Quebec (Source: Avramescu Marius, WikiCommons)

What is the reason for this disparity? Quebecers themselves argue that Quebec’s economy is stronger right now, and that they are making different choices when it comes to raising public revenues. But we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Quebec will receive $13.1 billion from the federal equalization program for 2019-2020 and Alberta will receive nothing. Is there really any wonder why Quebec has such a strong provincial surplus while Alberta is making cuts?

It is in times like this that Albertans begin to question whether the federal system, – as it is configured – is actually working for us.

Even if you set aside the Equalization program for a moment, Alberta has simply not benefited from federal expenditures to the same extent as other provinces. Last year, Tristin Hopper wrote an article for the National Post comparing how much each province pays into federal revenues versus how much they receive back in federal spending. The results were about what Westerners have come to expect: this system is great for others, but not for us.

For example, in 2016 Quebec contributed $50.3 billion in federal taxes and received $66.4 billion in federal expenditures. That means they received $16 billion more than what they paid into federal coffers.

Even though Alberta’s population is considerably lower than Quebec’s, we contributed around the same amount as Quebec in federal taxes in 2016, at $49 billion. Yet, we only received $27.2 billion in federal spending, meaning that $21.8 billion of our money ended up going somewhere else. In Hopper’s words, Alberta is getting “fleeced” by Ottawa.

I can think of a few things Alberta could have done with that $21.8 billion. The hundreds of families facing layoffs this Christmas could probably give us a few hints as well.

To be clear, Alberta doesn’t need handouts from Ottawa. To the contrary, we just need them to take less of our money. But since we currently cannot control the rate of federal taxation, at least we can redirect more of our federal tax dollars back to us rather than letting Ottawa continue to hand out so much of our resources to others.

The premiers recently met in Toronto to pressure the federal government for greater federal rebates such as Canada Health Transfers. So far, Prime Minister Trudeau seems open to the idea, no doubt hoping that he can solve the current national unity crisis by writing a few cheques. The request has produced a rare show of unanimity among the premiers, each of them obviously hoping to cash in on Trudeau’s tactical generosity.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has suggested that Ottawa owes Alberta $1.7 billion, which he is calling an “equalization rebate.” This is the amount we should have received through the Financial Stabilization Program during our economic downturn of 2015-2016. Some Albertans may bristle at the idea of accepting transfers from Ottawa. But remember, $49 billion of that federal cash pile is our money. We’re just taking as much of it back as we can get.

To understand the bigger picture of Alberta’s budget difficulties, we must take a hard look at our relationship with Ottawa compared with that of other provinces. Even if we considered new ways to raise revenue (ie., through a provincial sales tax), the potential revenues would not begin to compare with the amount of money that a province like Quebec gets from federal expenditures and transfers. The fact that some provinces are “swimming in cash” and others are tightening belts has a lot to do with a system designed to reward Ottawa’s friends at our expense.

Albertans consistently pay more into the federal system than we take out. During times of plenty, Albertans have shrugged at this disparity and said we are just doing our part. But when Albertans are losing jobs and other provinces are receiving billions from Ottawa, Albertans rightfully begin to wonder whether more of our federal tax dollars would be better spent here at home. The current talks of an “equalization rebate” for Alberta and other Western provinces is a good place to start.

James Forbes is a columnist for the Western Standard

James Forbes is a columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in History and writes about the history of politics, culture, and religion in Canada. (Twitter: @TartanTie)

Opinion

BARNES: Albertans deserve the right to make the big decisions in referenda law

Guest column from Drew Barnes says that Alberta’s referendum law should be expanded to allow votes on big constitutional issues.

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Guest opinion column from Alberta MLA Drew Barnes

“I am and I will remain a populist, because those who listen to the people are doing their job.” Matteo Salvini.

At its core the word populism is the action that government policies should be determined by the will of the people, not the will of the elite. Direct democracy is the institutional populism in action.

There is debate over whether populism should be termed as a movement or an ideology. Since the actions of populist engagement can transcend the ideological spectrum, I believe it should be viewed as a movement, that can sometimes manifest itself ideologically. As a movement, populist participation can take place on all points of the spectrum. Ultimately, that is what is wanted from a democratic society – engagement from all points of the spectrum.

Now more than ever, we need a new grassroots-populist approach to politics. Grassroots politics by its nature suggests that it is a movement that is sparked from the bottom-up. Politicians who came from grassroots movements must never forget where they came from, or lose sight of what they came to do. We need more of the bottom-up approach to politics, and make listening to the people that elected us a priority.

This is taking place in some measure here in Alberta. Political party policy processes allow for constituency associations to generate policy proposals for conventions, where they are voted on by the membership. Every party in Alberta – with the exception of the NDP – uses a ‘one member, one vote’ system.

Another grassroots/populist tool is referenda, that when used the right way are a valuable democratic tool. Referendums however, must stay true to their purpose, and the process for bringing them forward must allow for citizens to craft their own – fair – wording on a question. This is not to say that any question – however subjectively worded – that anyone wants to ask should be put to a referendum. Therefore, the rules on the use of referendums must not be overly onerous, nor overly temperate.

Switzerland is a prime example of a country that takes full advantage of referendums, including citizens’ initiative. In their democratic system, referendums can occur up to four times annually. All citizens registered to vote can cast their ballot on issues affecting decisions within both their federal government and their cantons (autonomous provinces). Before each vote, all registered voters receive a package of booklets in the mail which provide details on the coming referendums. Since these referendums began in 1848, just under half of the referendum proposals have passed. Even if they don’t always pass, the process is crucial to starting conversations and keeping citizens involved in debate. Referendums also force political parties to reach beyond partisan lines to reach consensus.

Alberta’s legislature recently passed a bill that guides referendums on non-constitutional matters. While this is a positive step forward, there are issues in this bill that need improvement. 

For example, Albertans initiating a referendum might go through the process of collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures, only to have the cabinet alter the wording the question. While fair wording of the question is critical to the integrity of direct democracy, that issue is not best dealt with by politicians who may have a stake in the result. Instead, clear guidelines should be established in law on question wording, and left to non-partisan officials at Elections Alberta. 

And while the new referendum legislation is a big step forward over the status quo (that is, nothing), it deliberately bans citizens-initiated referendums on constitutional questions. This means that if Albertans wished to force a vote on adding property rights to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that they would not be allowed. Similarly, Albertans are barred from forcing a vote on reforming the Senate, equalization, or internal free trade. Ominously, Albertans have no right to force a vote over the heads of the legislature on independence or other forms of sovereignty. 

I believe that Albertans can be trusted with the right of citizens’ initiative on all questions, both constitutional and non-constitutional. 

We trust the people to elect a government to run our systems, so why can’t we trust them to bring their own questions forward? 

Drew Barnes is the UCP MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat

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Opinion

LETTER: Erin O’Toole isn’t “woke” enough to beat Trudeau in the East

A reader says that Erin O’Toole isn’t “woke” enough to beat Trudeau in the East.

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In this ‘Era of Wokeness” along with the ascension of Black Lives Matter into the public consciousness, I believe that it would be detrimental to the Conservative Party of Canada to have Erin O’Toole as
it’s leader.

Mr O’Toole recently refused to use the word ‘racism’ and did not answer clearly when pressed on whether he believes it even exists. Erin O’Toole will hand the Trudeau Liberals an easy victory during the next election, should he become Tory leader. Canada cannot afford another four years of Justin Trudeau. 

Like it or not, most people in Ontario and Quebec (where all federal elections are ultimately decided owing to their number of allotted seats), are very much ‘woke’ on the issue of racism, as well as
sexism, homophobia, ect. In my experience, this also includes most Conservative Party of Canada voters in Eastern Canada.

Right-wing populism and social conservatism does well in Western Canada – but centrist Red Toryism is all they are prepared to accept in most of Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. CPC members in Western Canada need to keep this in mind when voting for their next leader. 

CPC members need to be sensible and realistic if they want to win the next federal election. 

Gila Kibner 
Edmonton, Alberta

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Opinion

LETTER: While Trudeau mislabels regular guns “military-style”, he is handing real assault weapons to the police

A reader says that Trudeau is militarizing the police while disarming Canadians.

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RE: Canada’s cops worried Liberal gun ban will hamper training

I enjoyed your article on the gun ban and how it will affect cops. A point of view the CBC would never share.

Perhaps another topic should be brought to the public is this: Although Justin Trudeau said there is no place for these weapons in Canada and Bill Blair said these  weapons have only one purpose – and that is for one soldier to kill another soldier – they gifted more deadly weapons to our local police forces through the Canadian Armed Forces., as was done recently in my hometown of St Thomas, Ontario.

What is the government’s agenda in giving true military assault weapons to the police and banning “military-style” (no legal definition) weapons from civilians. 

John Siberry
St. Thomas, ON

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