Stuck between Equalization and an Election

3 minute read

The upcoming Alberta provincial election is set for May 29th, and many are curious to see how it unfolds. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has been a controversial figure since taking over the leadership of the United Conservative Party, with many wondering if her tactics will pay off and win her a four-year mandate.

Smith’s short tenure as Premier has been filled with apologies, clarifications, and blunders, often requiring her to walk back or soften her stance on a variety of topics. Throughout these moments, Smith has remained true to her conservative roots and capitalized on the enduring Albertan principle of pushing back against Ottawa. 

Shortly after winning her by-election in November 2022, Smith penned a letter to the Prime Minister lamenting the carbon tax, Bill C-69, and general frustrations with the federal government’s handling of natural resources and the energy industry. She shared strong sentiments about using the Alberta Sovereignty Act should the federal government not treat Albertans fairly. 

The infamous act is supported most widely among those who share separatist sentiments, which seem to wane in strength and numbers as time passes. In November 2022, only 20 percent of respondents felt that Alberta would be better off if they left Canada, which shows a notable reduction from the 30 percent of respondents who felt similarly when surveyed 18 months prior. 

While it was the first item on her legislative agenda, the Alberta Sovereignty Act was eventually watered down to the Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act. It’s a mouthful without any teeth and has mostly been forgotten by even those within her caucus. 

Even though Smith spent considerable time touting her tough-on-Ottawa stance and wielding the Alberta Sovereignty Act as her battle axe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have refused to take the bait. Some even lauded the prime minister’s response (or lack thereof) and praised him for refusing to fuel the fire that Smith was so ready to set ablaze. 

Since then, Smith has proposed and backed down from removing Albertans from the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) and continues to skirt around the idea of replacing the Alberta RCMP with a provincial police force thereby asserting the province’s independence over its own affairs. Notably, the Alberta NDP has pledged to keep Albertans enrolled in the CPP and shared commitments to support social services and local law enforcement

A month away from the provincial election, polling shows the UCP is neck and neck with the Alberta NDP. 

Danielle Smith needs a silver bullet, and for reasons few can explain, the federal Liberals might have handed her one on a silver platter.

After the Budget Implementation Act was tabled last week, the public learned about the federal government’s aim to lock in the equalization formula for payments to provinces until 2029 — a small but mighty clause buried almost 200 pages into the 400-plus pages of financial and economic measures entering second reading in the House of Commons this week. 

Like every other conservative leader in Alberta, Smith’s playbook includes equalization. Last November, she told Albertans the federal government is dropping billions of tax dollars “into a black hole of the federal bureaucracy and vote-buying arrangements” in other parts of the country. 

On Friday afternoon, Smith took advantage of the opportunity by releasing a walk-and-talk campaign-style video. She reminded Albertans of a non-binding referendum about the issue during the 2019 election and linked equalization to the frustrations around top-of-mind issues such as affordability, the economy, and the prolonged effects of inflation.

As we inch closer to the writ, it’s worth wondering if this will underpin the UCP’s election campaign and allow Smith to thread the seemingly disparate policies into a more cohesive vision. It may force the opposition to weigh in on the matter and distract from other issues, like healthcare, that better resonate with their supporters. 

A lot can happen in 35 days. We’ll have to wait and see if the Alberta NDP takes the bait and whether the Prime Minister has more to offer on the timing of the government’s decision.

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