On the ballot: Equalization referendum largely misunderstood by Albertans

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Albertans facing a referendum question on equalization appear to be leaning toward supporting removing it from the Constitution, but don’t seem to know exactly what it is.

A research brief from Common Ground, a western Canadian political science research group out of the University of Alberta, published Wednesday showed results from an online survey had 43 per cent of respondents voting yes to the question “Should Section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 — Parliament and the Government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments — be removed from the Constitution?”

That number hasn’t changed since Common Ground’s survey in March.

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But the “no” responses moved up by six per cent to 26 per cent.

And undecided voters account for 28 per cent of responses, while three per cent said they wouldn’t vote on the matter.

Lisa Young, professor at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, said Common Ground’s poll indicated the equalization referendum may be more closely contested than initially thought.

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“We have to interpret the intentions with a little bit of caution,” Young told Global News. “We know that turnout matters a lot when it comes to municipal elections, and we don’t know whether the people who answered this survey are necessarily going to show up to vote.”

Albertans aged 55-plus were more in favour of voting for removing equalization from the constitution. Rural Albertans and those living in central and northern parts of the province were more likely to vote yes. Men and people with trades or university certificates were also more likely to vote in the same way.

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The survey was done in a Leger online panel of 1,204 responses between Sep. 21 and Oct. 6, 2021.

The research also showed that Albertans appear uninformed about what the federal equalization program actually does.

Eight questions with true or false answers were asked, 602 people responded and the average score was 3.1 out of eight.

Only 69 per cent were able to correctly answer whether “equalization supports provinces that have weaker than average economies” — a true statement. And only 15 per cent of people were able to answer whether “on a per person basis, Quebec receives more equalization funding from any other province” — a false statement.

Trevor Tombe, who has been teaching a graduate-level public finance class at the University of Calgary for years, said he wasn’t surprised that most Albertans don’t seem to have a comprehensive understanding of federal equalization and its place in the constitution.

“Like most large, complex policy areas, the level of broad understanding is fairly limited and that’s OK,” Tombe said. “Fairly limited for good reason, because it takes a lot of time and effort to really understand in detail the nuances of any policy.”

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Tombe said the equalization program aims to help provincial governments deliver comparable levels of public services without having to hike up taxes, and the program is based on per capita income levels.

He also said it helps reduce involvement of the federal government in provincial jurisdictions like health and education.

The basic misunderstanding of equalization was a surprise for the U of C economics professor.

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“In particular, 45 per cent didn’t answer the question about whether Alberta sends funds directly to other provinces correctly. So it could be that potentially half of Albertans voting in the upcoming referendum think that they’re doing so because of Alberta’s budget situation or that it will help, fiscally, the situation in the province,” Tombe told Global News.

The U of C economist said he won’t advise Albertans how to vote on the referendum question, but rather to look at it as a constitutional question.

“Ask yourself, do you support the principle behind equalization of ensuring reasonably comparable levels of public services can be provided at reasonably comparable rates of taxation? That’s the constitutional language.”

Amending the Constitution requires the support of seven provinces representing 50 per cent of Canada’s population.

Young said only Alberta’s and possibly Saskatchewan’s governments might be interested in moving this effort ahead.

On Tuesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said putting the question on the ballot was a campaign commitment dating back to the 2017 UCP leadership race and based on the 1998 Supreme Court of Canada’s reference on the secession of Quebec around the duty to negotiate on matters of federalism if a clear expression of democratic will was present.

Kenney also said his government would move forward with a simple majority of more than 50 per cent.

“This is something I think Albertans have long wanted to speak to,” Kenney said Tuesday. “We consulted widely through the fair deal panel in the fall of 2019 and the strong recommendation was to proceed with this electoral commitment.”

Young said the federal government is likely to see the referendum result in a different light.

“I don’t think that this is going to be seen as anything other than an expression of regional alienation from the federal government,” she said.

“I don’t think that the federal government would be doing themselves or future governments any favours by creating a precedent that says that if there is a referendum held on some constitutional issue in some province, they then had to negotiate on that issue.”

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Even if a majority of Albertans vote in favour of removing equalization from the constitution, that vote isn’t binding on the federal government, a fact addressed in the true-false questions. Only 44 per cent of those who took the questionnaire knew the referendum was non-binding.

“Many seemed misguided about the pretext for the referendum,” Jared Wesley wrote in the research paper. “Most Albertans fail to understand that the federal government can make changes to the equalization formula without consulting provinces and that Alberta has greater revenue-generating capacity than have-less provinces.”

Young said the government acts within its powers to tax Canadians and distribute those funds to provincial governments, as part of Confederation.

“It doesn’t have to be in the Constitution for the federal government to do that,” she said.

“You could take equalization out of the Constitution, and the federal government is still welcome to levy taxes and distribute funds to provincial governments.

“So, the constitutional amendment is actually a red herring.”

Young said the knowledge questions showed a clear split in voting intentions.

“People who know less are more likely to be supporting the referendum. People who know more about equalization are less likely to support it.”

Municipal election day in Alberta is Oct. 18.

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