What happened to Jason Kenney?

Stephen Maher on how the once serious Harper-era star became a provincial politician pitching an unserious referendum in Alberta
Jason Kenney celebrates his leadership win at the Alberta PC Party leadership convention in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, March 18, 2017. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
Jason Kenney celebrates his leadership win at the Alberta PC Party leadership convention in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, March 18, 2017. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
Jason Kenney celebrates his leadership win at the Alberta PC Party leadership convention in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, March 18, 2017. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

I have just noticed that at some point recently Jason Kenney has become dramatically less sensible, which comes as quite a surprise.

As a federal cabinet minister, Kenney was deeply impressive: disciplined, articulate and hard-working, willing to do difficult things and defend them in public, bringing intellectual rigour and gritty intensity to every debate.

When Stephen Harper’s front bench was filled with spokesministers—people chosen for their willingness to stick to the talking points typed up in the PMO—Kenney was an empowered, activist minister, actually running his files, making, for example, important changes to our immigration system that Liberal governments had been too timid to tackle.

In his spare time, he travelled the country, hustling for votes in ethnic banquet halls, challenging the Liberals in communities they had taken for granted for too long.

He had the smartest staff, the best lines, excellent political instincts, organizational ability, boundless energy and a kind of cheerful zeal that made him a pleasure to watch.

It was no surprise, then, that he was able to sell Albertans on his scheme to unite the two conservative parties in that province, and no surprise that he was able to best Brian Jean and become leader of the United Conservative Party.

READ MORE: The battle of Notley the oil-hater vs Kenney the bully

I missed some of their policy debates, so I was surprised this week when Kenney announced that he would like to hold a referendum on equalization if he becomes premier in 2019.

The idea is that Alberta is being treated so unfairly by the rest of the country—what with the carbon tax, and continued intransigence over pipelines—that Albertans need to vote on the program that Ottawa uses to take money from Alberta and give it to the poorer provinces.

This is not a sensible plan.

Albertans could just as effectively hold a referendum to abolish daylight saving time in Manitoba, rename the Ottawa Senators or make Houston the capital of the United States. Equalization is a federal program. Taxpayers across Canada pay into it in equal amounts. Kenney must know this because he was part of the government that set it up.

He  seems to be counting on the fact that most Albertans don’t know that, and will see a referendum as a way for him to stand up for Alberta.

If you don’t understand the details, his lines sound pretty good: “If the federal government continues its attacks through the National Energy Board and the federal carbon tax, then Alberta should take a common-sense approach and hold a referendum demanding the removal of non-renewable resource revenues from the equalization formula.”

You would gather from this that including non-renewable resource revenues in the equalization system is an injustice forced on Alberta by oil-rustling eastern villains. In fact, non-renewable resource revenues were included in the equalization formula in the 2007 budget, by Harper and Jim Flaherty, following the recommendation of an expert panel headed by Al O’Brien, former deputy treasurer of Alberta. And the conservative Fraser Institute, which is traditionally anti-equalization, says that removing resource revenue would not help Alberta.

Kenney knows that, because at that time he was Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity in Harper’s government.

Now, suddenly, the Harper-Flaherty formula is an injustice so grave that Albertans need to hold a referendum!

The idea was dreamed up by former Alberta finance minister Ted Morton, who cites a 1998 Supreme Court ruling that declared Ottawa would be obliged to negotiate with Quebec if that province votes to secede. This seems like a thin legal argument, but it may work politically. Political arguments don’t have to make sense.

Albertans often complain about equalization, since they never get anything out of it, and I can’t tell them they should like it.

The system was established in 1957 to provide money to poor provinces—which always includes the Maritimes and Quebec, and sometimes includes other provinces, depending on the state of their economies. Alberta never gets any of that money, because even when the economy there hits a rough patch, it’s still richer than all the other provinces.

Ottawa cuts up the money using a complicated formula so that all provinces “have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation,” as the Constitution puts it.

This year, that means the have-not provinces get $18.3 billion: $11 billion to Quebec, $1.8 billion to Manitoba, $1.4 billion to Ontario, $4 billion to the Maritimes.

I’m from Nova Scotia, which gets $1.9 billion in equalization this year—$1,822 per citizen—almost 20 per cent of provincial revenue, more than the province took in with its 10 per cent sales tax. Without that money, Nova Scotia would not be able to provide “reasonably comparable levels of public services,” and would have to take drastic steps, closing hospital and schools, which would cause anxiety and suffering to people dear to me.

I tend to think, therefore, that equalization is necessary and useful way to ensure that even the poorest parts of Canada are able to have hospitals and schools.

It is possible to feel otherwise. I can see why Albertans, who pay into the system but get nothing out of it, feel put upon, especially when other provinces keep refusing to approve pipelines to allow them to export the darned oil that produces so much money for everybody.

But it’s silly to pretend that a referendum would do anything useful about that, and strange that a serious person like Kenney would suddenly start pretending it would.