University of Alberta political scientist Dr. Jared Wesley joins Dave Cournoyer on the Daveberta Podcast for a deep dive into Alberta’s October 18 Equalization Referendum, why it is being held, what Premier Jason Kenney hopes to accomplish (and why he’s been absent on the campaign trail), and what the ramifications of the vote could be for Alberta and Canada.
We also answer some great listener questions about Equalization and dive into the history of Alberta’s low-key Senate Nominee Elections and more.
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According to the poll, 60 per cent of Edmontonians said they are more likely to vote for a mayor who opposes the policies of the provincial government. Only 14 per cent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports the government’s actions
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson spoke on CBC’s West of Centre Podcast and shared criticism of Kenney’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and a leadership style that soured the relationship with the two largest cities.
“I know that even the cabinet ministers who are just trying to do a good job are frustrated that they’re unable to make decisions or move files forward because petty partisan politics get in the way,” Nenshi said.
Alberta’s municipal election is only 14 days away.
When you think of municipal elections, you might immediately think about roads, libraries, sidewalks, pools, traffic, playgrounds, potholes, public transit, bike lanes and snow removal. And while these are some of the more high-profile responsibilities of municipal governments, the amount of information being thrown at voters in this year’s election has muddied the water about what the ballot issues on October 18 might be.
As if there weren’t already are a lot of challenges facing municipalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Alberta hard and municipal governments are bearing the brunt of many of those health, social and economic challenges.
Municipalities also face a hostile provincial government that has not hesitated to interfere in local issues, in some cases leaving Albertans with a choice between candidates who agree with the provincial government interference, candidates who want to keep their heads down in hopes for a change of provincial government in 2023, or candidates who will stand up for their communities and challenge the United Conservative Party government.
Senate Nominee Election
When you vote on Oct. 18 or in the advance polls you will probably be handed a few different ballots. One of them will ask you to choose up to three candidates in this year’s Senate Nominee Election.
Senate Nominee elections are a uniquely Alberta activity dating back to 1989. The elections are held to choose a list of names for the Premier to recommend to the Prime Minister for appointment to the Senate if vacancies occur.
Unfortunately for the candidates running in this election, they are not going to be appointed unless the Prime Minister is a member of the Conservative Party, the only major party that recognizes the elections as legitimate. The Liberal Party has created a new application process for Senate appointments, dismantling the old partisan patronage machine, and the NDP believe the Upper Chamber should be abolished.
One of the major flaws of the Senate Nominee election is that winning candidates who might eventually be appointed to the Senate never ever have to face re-election, so there is no opportunity for voters to hold these “elected” Senators accountable for their decisions. In fact, they can stay in the Senate until they turn 75-years old if they decide to.
Another major flaw is that a province-wide election in a province of 4.3 million people makes it impossible for the Senate candidates to meaningfully reach many voters. I doubt most Albertans could name a candidate running in year’s Senate Nominee election, but here they are:
Physicians Dr. Sunil Sookram. and Dr. Karina Pillay (also the former Mayor of Slave Lake), Ponoka Mayor Rick Bonnett, former Western Barley Growers Association President Jeff Nielsen, and former deputy premier and finance minister Doug Horner are running as Independent candidates are are the more serious candidates with real public service experience.
Then there are the three People’s Party endorsed candidates who filed their papers to run in the Senate Nominee election only hours before they were defeated as candidates in the Sept. 20 federal election – Nadine Wellwood, Kelly Lorencz, and Ann McCormack.
And finally there are the three UCP loyalists endorsed by the Conservative Party of Canada – lobbyist and former UCP President Erika Barootes, right-wing activist and failed municipal candidate Pam Davidson, and Ukrainian-Canadian trade association president Mikhailio Martyniouk.
The three UCP/Conservative Party candidates, who appear to have less comparable actual public service experience than many of the Independent candidates on the ballot, are still probably going to win. But like previous Senate Nominee elections, the turnout will be low and number of spoiled ballots will be high.
Alberta’s Senate Nominee election should be a serious affair, but it will probably end up being a joke or an afterthought for most Albertans who will have no idea who to vote for.
Plebiscites and Referendums
Depending where you live in Alberta you could also be handed one, two or three additional ballots to cast your vote for referendums and plebiscites, though there is a good chance you haven’t heard much about them during this election.
Even if the Equalization formula was removed from the Constitution, Albertans wouldn’t actually notice any change. We would still pay federal taxes the same as we do now, but the federal government would not be obligated to distribute funds collected through federal taxes to the provinces through an Equalization formula as currently required by the Constitution.
The Equalization referendum is all about the politics of grievance and saving Jason Kenney’s leadership of the UCP. A yes vote won’t accomplish much and a no vote will probably hurt Kenney’s chance of remaining in the Premier’s Office for much longer (Kenney’s approval rating has dropped to 22 per cent according to a recent poll from ThinkHQ).
In this referendum, a no vote is a vote to continue the annual time change and a yes vote is a vote for darker mornings and lighter evenings in the winter. If I understand correctly, it could also mean that from March to November each year Alberta’s timezone will be two hours ahead of the times observed in much of British Columbia. The result of the vote on this question is binding on the provincial government.
At least in Edmonton, candidate endorsements have become a mini-story.
This year’s city council election has seen a string of high-profile endorsements of city council candidates from Mayor Don Iveson, mayoral candidate Mike Nickel and some individual NDP MLAs across the city. While it is not unheard of for incumbent City Councillors to endorse candidates in a municipal election, the number of endorsements in this year’s election is significantly higher than usual.
Just like City Councillor endorsements, it is not unheard of for MLAs to endorse candidates, but this year the number of MLAs endorsing municipal candidates is higher.
The decision by some NDP MLAs to endorse candidates has flustered some political watchers who for some reason believe municipal politics should exist in a vacuum outside of provincial and federal politics, the endorsements appear to be a choice made by individual MLAs rather than a decision made by the party.
And in at least one case, NDP MLAs have endorsed different candidates. In Ward tastawiyiniwak, for example, the NDP endorsements appear to be split, with Edmonton-City Centre MLA David Shepherd endorsing Ahmed Knowmadic Ali and Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview NDP MLA Deron Bilous endorsing Cody Bondarchuk.
While it has certainly made Edmonton’s political establishment uncomfortable, it is positive to see progressive groups organizing to support candidates. With traditional low turnout, low interest and high-incumbent re-election, municipal politics in Edmonton could use a bit of disruption.
The new rules make it legal for wealthy people to donate up to $5,000 each to as many candidates as they want in any municipal or school board election across the province, effectively removing the cap on individual donations. While municipal political donors do not receive the generous tax credits they get from provincial or federal donations, there are wealthy Albertans with the ability to financially influence candidates across the board.
The UCP also removed the requirement for candidates to disclose their list of donors ahead of Election Day, which would have allowed voters to see who is financially supporting candidates before they go to the ballot booth. Many candidates will already do this on their own but many won’t because they are not required to by law.
The new rules introduced by the UCP also allow Third Party Advertisers, colloquially known as political action committees, to spend up to $500,000 on advertising during the referendums, up from the previous $150,000 limit. Third Party Advertisers that spend less than $350,000 on advertising during a referendum are not required to file financial statements with Elections Alberta, which means those groups don’t have to publicly disclose their donor lists.
The panel, which was announced by Premier Jason Kenney at the Manning Networking Conference in Red Deer, was a relief value to give frustrated Conservatives an opportunity to express their anger at the Liberals and a steering wheel to allow the Premier to control the political narrative around Alberta’s political relationship with Ottawa.
A federal Conservative landslide in Alberta is nothing new, it literally happens every four years. But the latest electoral division reflects an increasing feeling inside Alberta that the rest of Canada does not support the province’s energy industry and a growing feeling outside of Alberta that the province is a laggard on climate change and reducing carbon emissions.
Alienation and anger at Ottawa is omnipresent in Alberta politics, but the separatist threat that spooked Kenney seven months ago has largely evaporated and the crash in the international price of oil and the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of the provinces being able to work with a federal government for financial relief.
Fair Deal Panel meant to distract from the UCPs job cuts agenda: Creating external enemies and manufacturing crises is something that Kenney excels at. The focus on the Fair Deal report and its recommendations are meant to distract Albertans from the UCP’s political agenda closer to home.
Despite claiming to be obsessed with creating jobs, Kenney’s government has done the opposite by cutting tens of thousands of jobs in Alberta’s public service, schools, colleges and universities. A high-profile dispute with Alberta’s doctors, which included an incident where Health Minister Tyler Shandroyelled at a physician at the driveway of his home, has mired the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UCP is also moving forward with plans to close and privatize Alberta’s provincial parks.
Police and pension plans: There is little in the final report that the UCP government wasn’t already prepared to pursue or consider. Kenney has said that the government plans to implement or study 23 of the 25 recommendations in the panel’s final report.
Despite public opinion polls showing Albertans do not support replacing the Canada Pension Plan with an Alberta Pension Plan and replacing the RCMP with an Alberta police service, Kenney’s response to the panel report indicated the government was planning to study the two proposals. Both ideas are expensive and likely within provincial jurisdiction to implement, but the creation of an Alberta Pension Plan contradicts other proposals in the report meant to break down trade barriers and increase labour mobility with other provinces.
Equalization referendum: Kenney has spent much of the past year threatening to hold a referendum to remove the equalization article from the Constitution of Canada, so it was unsurprising to see the panel recommend it as well. The threat originated with frustration around delays with the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and the federal government’s purchase of the pipeline did not convince Kenney to abandon the pledge.
In its report, the panel admits that a provincial referendum will not have the power to force the federal government or other provinces to reopen the Constitution or renegotiate the equalization formula.
There is probably no scenario where Alberta, a province that is wealthier than most other Canadian provinces even during an economic downtown, will receive funds from a national equalization program. But the unfairness of equalization is a talking point engrained in mainstream Alberta that is not based in fact and is not going away anytime soon.
The panel suggests holding a referendum on equalization would “morally obligate” the federal government and provinces to negotiate amendments to the Constitution. The same argument has worked unsuccessfully for thirty-years on the issue of Senate reform, which the panel report also recommends the province continue to pursue through provincial Senate Nominee elections.
Although they dominate in federal and provincial elections, Conservatives have less success at the municipal level where candidates campaign as individuals and mayors offices, town councils and school boards have been more likely to be populated with Albertans more closely aligned with the NDP or Liberals.
Candidates in Alberta’s previous Senate Nominee elections ran under provincial party banners or as Independents. Changes introduced in the Senate Election Act in 2019 (which the report incorrectly refers to as the Senatorial Selection Act, which expired in 2016), will allow candidates to be marked on as a ballot as affiliated with federal political parties.
Injecting a federal party like the Conservative Party of Canada and its resources into a provincial vote being held during a municipal election will muddy the waters during the municipal election, forcing equalization and federal issues into local campaigns that usually focus on local issues. With the federals Liberals having abandoned their Senate caucus and the New Democratic Party continuing to call for Senate abolition, it is unlikely that the those parties will have any interest in participating in the Senate election, leaving the Conservatives to collect voter data and drive conservative voters to the polls.
Perhaps the best example of how the Fair Deal report is a partisan political document and not a serious effort in public engagement is this map found on page 52 of the report.
Framed as an East versus West political crisis over satisfaction with Canada, the map excludes British Columbia, where 60% of respondents to the Angus Reid Institute survey in January 2020 said they were satisfied with “the way things are going in Canada.”
The map also wedges Manitoba into the western bloc by listing that province’s dissatisfied number when the survey showed that 54% of Manitobans were satisfied.
So I fixed the map.
The only two provinces where a majority of survey respondents were unsatisfied are Alberta and Saskatchewan, which also happen to be the only two provinces where a majority of voters supported the Conservative Party of Canada…
The 1980s were heady times for constitutional debaters and Senate reform advocates in Canada. Dozens of reports from various governments, organizations, and think-tanks studied the idea of reforming Canada’s appointed Upper Chamber.
Unlike today, when the majority of Senators sit as Independents, decades of federal Liberal Party governments had led to the 1980s Senate being overflowing with Liberal partisan appointees.
The motion to create the committee and the 1985 and 1987 motions to hold Senate elections had cross-partisan support – including from the PC, New Democratic Party and Liberals. This is a marked difference from today, where the NDP are advocates of Senate abolition, the Liberals have their banished Senators from their federal caucus, and Conservatives (at least when they are in government) have largely fallen back into supporting the current appointed Senate model.
The committee report tabled in the Legislative Assembly in 1985 included a number of recommendations for reforming the Senate that are much more ambitious than anything being presented by Senate election advocates today.
Unlike the unimaginative Senate Election Act, which is a largely farcical exercise, the Special Select Committee on Senate Reform called for wide-ranging constitutional reforms that would reorganize and increase the democratic accountability of the Upper Chamber.
The 1985 report recommended Senators should be elected using a first-past-the-post system and that they should represent constituencies identical to provincial boundaries. Senators would be elected for the life of two provincial legislatures with staggered elections allowing for three to be elected during each provincial election, with each voter being able to vote for three candidates.
The number of Senators would have been dropped to 64 had the committee had its way, with six representing each province and two representing each territory. This would presumably fulfill the “equal” part of the call for a Triple-E Senate (the other Es being effective and elected).
The report also recommended that “the Senate should be organized on a different basis than any other Upper House in the Commonwealth,” including being organized without the recognition of political parties.
The report argued that “if the role of the Senate is to represent the regions (provinces) of the country, it must be structured to represent those regions’ interests rather than the interest of national political parties.” This is somewhat reflective of the current Senate, where the majority of members sit as Independents rather than members of political parties.
The report recommended that traditional opposition and government roles in the Senate be abolished, including the positions of Government Leader and Opposition Leader, and that Senators should physically be seated in provincial delegations regardless of any party allegiances. Each provincial delegation would select a chairman who would should sit at the pleasure of the provincial delegation and participate in a Senate Executive Council, which would, along with the Speaker, determine the order of business of the Senate.
The report also called for the qualifications for candidates to the Senate to be made the same as those for Members of Parliament, removing minimum 30 years old age requirement of and $4,000 property ownership requirement.
It also noted that “the Senate should not be a forum for inter-governmental negotiations.”
Now a quick look at Bill 13, the Senate Election Act
The Senate Election Act introduced by Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer this week would allow the Senate nominee candidates to be chosen through an election but then, if the Prime Minister decides to appoint the winners, which he is not bound to do, they will be able to serve their time in the Senate until the age of 75 without ever having to face re-election.
The biggest flaw with this bill and Alberta’s previous Senate election laws is that there is no real accountability if these elected Senators never have to face re-election.
The Act introduced this week would have Senate candidates nominated by provincial political parties or as Independent candidate, but list their federal political party affiliation next to their name on the ballot. This is a significant change from the previous Senate nominee elections when candidates were listed under provincial party banners. It is unclear whether the federal political parties will have any say about the candidates who align with them in a provincially-administered Senate election.
Kenney and Schweitzer announced that the next Senate election will take place during the October 17, 2021 municipal elections, which will also be the date of the promised “equalization referendum.” It has been speculated that these events are scheduled on this date in order to boost conservative voter turnout in the municipal elections and fulfill the Conservative Party’s long-time dream of defeating Naheed Nenshi and electing a capital-C conservative into the mayor’s office in Calgary.