MORTON: It's time for Alberta's Boston Tea Party moment
Ted Morton (Originally published in the Calgary Herald on October 26, 2019, published here with permission of the author)
Our news media is flooded with stories about the tsunami of separatist sentiment that has exploded in Western Canada since Monday’s federal election. Memberships for a “WEXIT” website soared from 2,500 to 125,000 in less than 24 hours. Signatures on an online petition to separate have surpassed 80,000 and more are being added every minute. (Google “Western Alliance Alberta Separation.”)
Mainstream media and commentators are reassuring readers that this disturbance will dissipate. Of course, the 70 per cent of voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan who voted for the Conservatives and now find their provinces with not a single MP in the new Liberal government are angry. But this is just a passing phase. Albertans will get over it, and we will be back to business as usual soon enough. But they are wrong. And they are wrong for two reasons.
The first is this is not just about anger. It is about fear. Fear of losing jobs and the ripple effect this is having. The day after the election, Husky Energy laid off 200 employees in its Calgary office. These are not the first layoffs in the western oilpatch and they will not be the last.
During the election campaign, export oil and gas pipelines were treated as an infrastructure and financial issue. Which they are. But they are also a people issue. Bankruptcies and layoffs have a ripple effect on Main Street. When a spouse loses his or her job, young families suddenly can’t pay their home mortgages or car loan. They can’t afford or get to the kids’ hockey practices or soccer games. Predictably, since 2014 Alberta has witnessed a spike in domestic abuse, divorce and even suicides.
So no, this is not going to disappear shortly. Anger and frustration may. But fear is deeper.
Fear does not pass until the danger is gone. Now with a Liberal minority government supported by explicitly anti-pipeline third parties; with Bill C-69 and C-48 now permanent government policies; the danger is not going away anytime soon for western Canadian families.
The second reason is the growing realization in Alberta and Saskatchewan that our vulnerability to federal politics and policies is structural not temporary. It’s not as if this is the first time the Liberal party has formed a government with virtually no representation from the West. Justin Trudeau’s father did it in 1980 with his National Energy Program. We’ve all seen this movie before. And we will see it again unless there are constitutional changes. Ten years of Conservative government under Stephen Harper gave the West some respite, but it did not fix our deeper vulnerability.
The sad fact is that the Liberal party doesn’t need any votes from the West to form a government. To form a majority government, you need to win a minimum of 170 seats. Ontario (121) and Quebec (78) combined have 199, or 59 per cent of the MPs. By comparison, the three western-most provinces — B.C. (42), Alberta (34) and Saskatchewan (14) — have only 90 MPs or 27 per cent of the total.
The demographic vulnerability of the West is compounded by our very different regional economies. Combined, Alberta (15.5 per cent), B.C. (13.2 per cent) and Saskatchewan (3.7 per cent) constitute 32.4 per cent — or almost one-third — of Canada’s annual GDP. Quebec contributes only 19.5 per cent. Yet despite the fact that the West contributes 66 per cent more to Canada’s economy than Quebec, we still have three fewer MPs.
While Western Canada is voter-poor, it is resource-rich. Per capita income in Alberta and Saskatchewan is $78,213 and $69,095, respectively. In Quebec, it is $50,276. Under graduated federal tax rates, the more money that Ottawa spends, the more money that exits Western Canada. These figures help to explain why federal politicians who want to win elections like high-tax, high-spending budgets. Like the Liberals’ proposal for a new publicly funded universal prescription drug plan.
This also helps to explain why since 1961 the net fiscal transfer of money out of Alberta has been $611 billion. And why since 2010 Ottawa has taken an average of over $20 billion a year out of Alberta, even when we were running nine consecutive deficit budgets. And why Quebec is now receiving two-thirds of every dollar in the federal equalization program. The electoral math is that simple.
What has been happening to Alberta for the past 50 years is not unique to Canada. The national governments in Spain and Italy routinely raid the treasuries of demographically small but economically wealthier regions to win national elections. Rome siphons revenues from Lombardy and Veneto in northern Italy to help win votes in the poorer but more populous southern Italy. Governments in Madrid do the same to Catalonia, the prosperous region that surrounds Barcelona. Significantly, in the past decade, voters/taxpayers in both Lombardy/Veneto and Catalonia have fought back by forming separatist parties and holding referendums to acquire more regional autonomy or secede. In both countries, these referendums have won strong majority support.
These different examples — Catalonia, Lombardy, Alberta — illustrate variations on a familiar theme in all contemporary democracies: parties try to win elections by promising to give a majority of the voters something for nothing. But instead of targeting wealthier corporations, families and individuals (always a minority of voters), successful national political parties target wealthier regions that have a minority of voters. The electoral math is that simple.
When viewed in this context, there is a growing realization for Albertans that the system itself is fatally flawed. That is, without structural or constitutional change, Alberta will continue to be vulnerable to fiscally predatory Liberal party politics and policies.
As Keith Davey, Pierre Trudeau’s campaign strategist, so eloquently put it: “Screw the West. We’ll take the Rest.” It worked in 1980. It worked in 2019. And it will keep on working until the rules of the game are changed.
So no, the current wave of separatist sentiment in Alberta and Western Canada is not going to quickly dissipate as it has in the past. There is an applicable proverb: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Or as the French like to say, “Une fois, oui. Deux fois, non!”
The challenge for premiers Jason Kenney and Scott Moe will be to channel this new wave of separatist sentiment into meaningful and productive constitutional reforms. No easy task. Their success will depend in part on how receptive Ottawa will be to meaningful structural changes. To get things started, it might be helpful if the prime minister and his new cabinet googled “No taxation without representation” to learn how a “colonial grievance” sparked the first political revolt in North America.
(Originally published in the Calgary Herald on October 26, 2019, published here with permission of the author)