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Opinion

Western Independence: Messy Brexit, or Amicable Divorce?

Alberta could learn what to avoid from Brexit.

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Opponents of Alberta’s – or the West’s – independence allege that leaving Canada would be an epic ‘layer cake’ of Brexits. For three years, the UK government has been floundering in a morass of failed negotiations as they work towards exiting the European Union. Federalists argue that if Albertans voted to leave, the resulting divorce proceedings would be worse than Brexit as the province would overnight be cut off from trade agreements, treaties, alliances and membership in international organizations like NATO and the United Nations. Overnight, hundreds of commodities would be subject to a web of baseline tariffs and the economy come to a halt. 

Divorce is painful and often messy, but some more so than others. For example, when Czechoslovakia was partitioned in 1993, it was called the ‘Velvet Divorce’. Czechoslovakia was an ahistorical and artificial creation of the Treaty of Versailles, molding together different nationalities that were happier in their own separate counties. After the Second World War, the Südeten German minority was expelled, and by 1993, both Czechs and Slovaks agreed to the dissolution. Individuals who disagreed – like the country’s last president, Vaclav Havel – resigned. It was all over quickly, and peacefully. 

Likewise, most of the former soviet republics that declared their independence from the USSR did so quickly and peacefully. In short, not every national divorce need result in endless and drawn-out negotiations. 

Alberta could learn what to avoid from Brexit. 

For one, leadership matters.  When Prime Minister David Cameron called the referendum on EU membership, he believed the electorate would overwhelmingly vote to remain tied to Europe. It was a serious miscalculation, as 52 per cent voted to leave. 

It also set Brexit off to a very poor start. The lack of strong leadership has plagued Brexit ever since. David Cameron did the right thing and resigned as the referendum results were announced, and Boris Johnson – the most prominent backer of Leave (after UKIP’s Nigel Farage) – seemed likely to win the leadership. But internal Tory power politics played out differently and Theresa May – who had campaigned for Remain – unexpectedly came up the middle. 

It’s not surprising that someone who did not wish to leave was unable to get a deal. After years of negotiations and missed deadlines, May finally admitted defeat and Johnson took over. Since his resounding win on December 12th, 2019, he appears to be in a strong position to finally get the job done. Had Johnson been in the job in 2016, it is likely that Britain would be long since independent by now. 

If Alberta and the West wish to avoid a Brexit quagmire, they need a strong independence leader. It would be pointless to hold a referendum until the West has found its George Washington.  

Another reason Brexit has been so messy was the lack of unity, and the lingering hope of the pro-EU forces for a do-over. All of the major parties were split, with a minority of the Tories hoping to remain, and a minority of Labour wanting to go.

If a majority of Albertans voted to leave, Alberta must burn the boats immediately and make clear that there will be no do-over. Anyone who has ended a bad relationship knows once a decision is made, it must be adhered to without waffling in order to avoid an ugly, painful, drawn-out breakup. 

Lastly, Western Canadians should brush up on their Game Theory. John Nash featured in ‘A Beautiful Mind’ was a Nobel Prize winning Economist who developed the Prisoner’s Dilemma during the Cold War to predict the rational behavior of both sides. The Prisoner’s Dilemma demonstrates why two rational prisoners might not cooperate, even when it is in their best interest to do so. Boris Johnson understands Prisoner’s Dilemma. He has committed to leave with or without a deal, calculating that this tough stance will draw the EU and parliamentarians to the bargaining table with some major concessions.  

Alberta and Canada would be playing the same game. Canada’s best bet is to attempt to frighten and threaten Albertans into staying. It makes sense for federalists to present only the worst-case scenario, and for Canada to drive a hard bargain in the hope Albertans will choose the devil they know. 

This is why Alberta would do well to burn the ships immediately after a referendum. If Canada is certain that Alberta will leave with or without a deal, the next best position is to compromise and seek a mutually beneficial agreement. Likewise, the best starting position for Alberta is to make it clear the relationship is over and to drive a hard bargain. The risk to both parties is if neither ever moves into a conciliatory position.

Those claiming that Alberta would leave without trade agreements, treaties, and alliances, are already playing the game. Nobody serious is proposing that independence be completed without these important items being negotiated first. As we’ve seen in the UK, voting in a referendum to leave is only the first step.

Unless the negotiations are hijacked by irrational and pugnacious characters, Alberta would not leave without a deal in place. And if the negotiations went that badly, Alberta would suffer less than the Rest of Canada. A trade war would injure Alberta, but it would decimate British Columbia.

If Albertans have a strong independence leader, burn the ships early, and understand game theory, it is unlikely that they will suffer from a Brexit-like mess, or any other nightmare bogyman. 

We know federalists will attempt to terrify Albertans. They are wisely playing the game. What remains to be seen is whether Albertans will recognize the game for what it is and play its hand well.

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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