Red Deer, Alta. — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney outlined on Saturday the mandate for a new panel that will study what the province should demand as a “fair deal for Alberta” in Confederation, including looking at ways that will take back provincial powers that have been ceded to Ottawa.
At a speech Saturday afternoon in Red Deer, Kenney said the panel would answer questions including whether or not Alberta should pull out of the Canada Pension Plan and form its own plan instead, create a provincial police force instead of relying on the RCMP for rural policing, and opt out of some cost-sharing programs with the federal government.
As well, Kenney said the province will seek to retroactively lift the cap on fiscal stabilization back to 2014-15 to receive a $1.75-billion equalization rebate. Alberta has continued to be a net contributor to equalization despite enduring tougher economic times than other provinces over the last five years, but the province has said the cap has left it unable to claim meaningful fiscal stabilization funds.
“We’ve had it with Ottawa’s indifference to this adversity. Albertans have been working for Ottawa for too long, it’s time for Ottawa to start working for us,” Kenney declared in his speech to the Alberta Manning Networking Conference. “We Albertans will not lose our heads, we are practical people, we are not unreasonable people. Nothing we are asking for is unreasonable.”
The speech — which Kenney said he was up all night writing in the premier’s office — drew heavily on longstanding conservative ideas for strengthening Alberta’s position within Confederation. Some of them were detailed years ago in the Alberta Agenda, informally known as the “firewall letter,” published in the National Post in 2001 and written by Stephen Harper (before he went on to become a federal party leader), then academic and future Alberta cabinet minister Ted Morton, and other Alberta conservative luminaries.
Kenney was giving the keynote address at the Saturday conference, which was themed “What Next?” and was put on by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Right-wing politicians, activists and thinkers had gathered at the conference to map out whether a road to victory for conservatism exists in Canada, after the recent federal election, or whether an increasingly alienated west needs to consider other options. Separatism sentiment in Alberta and Saskatchewan has been growing louder since the Liberals were able to hang on to a minority government in Ottawa.
Kenney took the stage to loud applause in Red Deer behind a lectern emblazoned with the slogan “A Fair Deal Now,” with Canada and Alberta flags beside him.
Central to Kenney’s pitch as leader of the United Conservative Party and as premier of Alberta has been drawing from Quebec’s playbook to get more power provincially, wresting it away from Ottawa.
In his speech, Kenney went through the troubled times in Alberta, arguing the major economic crisis in Alberta right now can’t simply be blamed on lower oil prices, or shale booms in North Dakota or other global factors. Rather, he lambasted the Liberal government’s “record of assaults” on Alberta, such as through over-regulation and its ambivalence about the province’s oil and gas economy, which have driven investment out of the province, seeking more hospitable jurisdictions such as the U.S.
“It’s not about prices, it’s about policy,” Kenney declared.
He pointed to the effect of the downturn on the people of the province: the exploding opioid crisis, rising crime and violence, rampant bankruptcies, and the increase in the rate of suicide as hopelessness spreads.
“The human cost of all of this is very real,” Kenney said. “This literally is for many people a life and death question.”
Kenney said Alberta is well on its way to becoming “the most responsible barrel of oil produced in the world.”
“We will be the most desirable last barrel available to global energy markets,” Kenney said.
Before launching in to his plans for determining Alberta’s “fair deal,” Kenney said he would not accept the prospect of separation, saying he’ll always be a federalist, even if Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government may be “dangerous to the federation.” The better alternative, he said, is “bold action that is urgently executed.”
“As premier it is my democratic duty to stand up for Alberta and as a proud Canadian it is my patriotic duty to stand up for national unity,” Kenney said. “All we’ve ever asked for is a fair deal, to enjoy the same autonomy rights and respect as all other provinces.”
The premier vowed to open offices in Ottawa, Quebec and British Columbia to “defend the province’s interests.” The government is also planning to mimic legislation in B.C. that allows for referendums on major issues. He said his government will continue to work on platform promises, such as fighting for equalization reform and, if necessary, a referendum on the subject. Kenney also listed off other promises: reviving senate elections, which had been discontinued under the previous government, an Alberta-run parole board and fighting for property rights to be added to the constitution, among others.
“We are going to be very bold in imagining every way that we can assert ourselves,” Kenney said.
Kenney said the panel considering the “fair deal” question was one made up of “eminent Albertans” — such as former Reform party leader, Preston Manning — although its work would not commit the Alberta government to any ideas, but rather put them on the table for study.
Kenney was not made available to reporters to answer questions after his speech.
Among the proposals to be considered is for Alberta to collect its own taxes within the province, rather than outsourcing the job to Ottawa, just as Quebec already does; a withdrawal from the CPP and instead create a provincially-run pension plan, as exists in Quebec; a provincial police force, such as Ontario and Quebec have; seeking Alberta’s involvement in international treaty negotiations on issues that affect the province; and adopting Quebec’s requirement that local bodies — school boards and municipalities — get approval from the province before “entering into agreements” with Ottawa.
The panel, which has a budget of $650,000, will also be looking at creating a provincial firearms office, study the possibility of opting out of federal-provincial cost-sharing programs — a news release cites a possible national pharmacare program as an example — and creating a provincial constitution.
The panel will consult with the public for other ideas.
Kenney added that any measures coming out of the panel that were up for serious consideration would still be subject to a provincial referendum. “I can assure Albertans that we would not make a decision … unless the majority of Albertans were to endorse those proposals in a fair and democratic referendum,” he said.
The panel will begin public consultations on November 16 and conclude Jan. 20, 2020, with the panel’s recommendations going to the government by the end of March.
“Many Albertans who indicate support for federalism are demanding significant reforms that will allow the province to develop its resources, and play a larger role in the federation,” Kenney wrote in a letter to the panel charging them with their mandate.
Kenney told the crowd in Red Deer that even as the “fair deal” project unfolds, the priorities remain rebuilding Alberta’s badly hurt economy and ensuring that the Trans Mountain pipeline is built, by standing up for the “rule of law.”
“All of Alberta’s leverage will be focused on this goal,” he said.
Kenney’s speech, more than an hour long, was as much about grievances against Ottawa as it was about championing Alberta’s ability to persevere and overcome the challenges put before it.
“In so many ways Alberta did become the brightest gem, at least within the Canadian crown,” said Kenney.
“We are the province of opportunity, we are the magnet of risk taker and doers, builders and dreamers,” said Kenney. “This is a province with a huge and vital future. We must believe in this province. We must draw upon our natural resilience, on our history of overcoming adversity, as we have in the past, we will do it again, working together for an Alberta that is strong and free because we know that a strong Alberta means a strong Canada and it means a strong future for the next generation.”
He received a standing ovation.
Members of Kenney’s new ‘fair deal’ panel
Preston Manning, founder of the Reform Party
Stephen Lougheed, former CEO of Alberta Innovates
Oryssia Lennie, former deputy minister of Western Economic Diversification Canada
Jason Goodstriker, former Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations
Donna Kennedy-Glans, former Calgary MLA
Moin Yahya, law professor, University of Alberta
Drew Barnes, Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA
Miranda Rosin, Banff-Kananaskis MLA
Tany Yao, Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA