From the Desk of:John Wodak SALT Chair

FIREWALL REVISITED

In 2001 a group of six conservatives published an open letter to Premier Ralph Klein, subsequently dubbed the “firewall letter”.  The first signature (presumably that of the lead author) was that of the (then) President of the National Citizens’ Coalition, Stephen Harper.

The letter proposed, in the context of alleged malicious election tactics by the federal liberals, that Alberta assert its constitutional rights and “take greater charge of our own future”.  The proposals included:

  • Withdrawal from the Canada Pension Plan and the creation of an Alberta Pension Plan offering the same benefits at lower cost “while giving Alberta control over the investment fund”;
  • Creation of an Alberta Revenue Agency to collect personal income taxes;
  • Creation of an Alberta Provincial Police Force to replace the RCMP when the current contract expired in 2012;
  • Resumption of provincial responsibility for health-care policy, including raising the revenue for health care (the current Health and Social Transfers would be replaced with tax points);
  • Forcing Senate reform back onto the national agenda.

The letter concluded with a vision of the future in which “only our imagination will limit the prospects for extending the reform agenda that your government undertook eight years ago.”

In 2003/2004 a committee of government Members of the Legislative Assembly held hearings around the province and produced a report (“Strengthening Alberta’s Role in Confederation”).  In addition to several then-current hot-button issues (gun registry, the Canadian Wheat Board, Employment Insurance, and the Koyoto Accord), the report included: discussion of an Alberta Pension Plan, Alberta Revenue Agency and Alberta police force; Senate reform; health care; and transfer payments.  The report was more cautious than the firewall letter; it considered which proposals were feasible rather than simply ideologically desirable.

In November 2019, Premier Jason Kenney appointed an eight-member Fair Deal panel with a mandate to “listen to Albertans and their ideas for Alberta’s future”.  The mandate letter identified a number of specific measures:

  • Establishing a provincial revenue agency to collect provincial taxes directly by ending the Canada-Alberta Tax Collection Agreement, while joining Quebec in seeking an agreement to collect federal taxes within the province
  • Creating an Alberta Pension Plan by withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan
  • Establishing a provincial police force by ending the Alberta Police Service Agreement with the Government of Canada
  • Emulating Quebec’s practice of playing a larger role in international relations, in part by seeking Alberta representation in treaty negotiations that effect Alberta’s interests
  • Emulating Quebec’s legal requirement that public bodies, including municipalities and school boards, obtain the approval of the provincial government before they can enter into agreements with the federal government
  • Using the existing provincial power to appoint the Chief Firearms Office for Alberta
  • Opting out of federal cost share programs with full compensation, such as the federal government’s proposed pharmacare program
  • Seeking an exchange of tax points for federal cash transfers under the Canada Health and Social Transfers
  • Establishing a formalized provincial constitution

Clearly, Premier Kenney’s mandate letter is a composite of issues identified and/or examined in the firewall letter and the 2004 Committee report.  The underlying basis appears to be partly ideological and partly a perception that federal Liberal governments have neglected Alberta’s hopes and aspirations, either because of indifference (at best) or vindictiveness (at worst).  Whether these grievances are real or imagined, the fact remains that the federal Conservatives were in power from 2006 to 2015 under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. For most of that period, Jason Kenney was a cabinet minister. The Harper governments abolished the Wheat Board and long gun registry and attempted to streamline the approval process for resource projects but did nothing for the rest of Alberta’s wish list.

Is “fair deal” an appropriate title for the review?  Who decides what is “fair”? “Fair play” and “level playing field” are concepts from competitive sports that everyone is familiar with.  The rules of all sports require that the decision-maker(s) (referees) are people with no vested interest in the outcome of the competition.  If such an agency exists in the real world, would the people of Alberta accept its judgement? Would the government of Alberta? Is repeating the same wish list over and over and expecting something to happen equivalent to repeating the same action and expecting a different result?

The Fair Deal panel was instructed to conduct public consultations between “November 16 and January 30, 2019” (an interesting retrogressive feat) and report by the end of March, 2020.  This may be redundant; according to Edmonton Journal columnist Keith Gerein (January 25, 2020), the Kenney government intends to hold a partisan Senate election and referenda on equalization, the Canada Pension Plan and the RCMP in conjunction with the 2021 municipal elections.

If the report in the Edmonton Journal is correct, which is quite possible, it means that the government’s plans were set before the Fair Deal panel was appointed.  This would make it another case of decision-based evidence-making. The panel’s report may be nothing more than a rather transparent fig leaf.

John Wodak

February 2020

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