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Alberta Conservatives stoke faux outrage about equalization and Quebec

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney

Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta's Opposition United Conservative Party, calls the Trudeau Government's renewal of Canada's current equalization formula for an additional five years "a slap in the face to Alberta."

"It means we will continue to be forced, even when times are bad in Alberta, forced to subsidize public services in other parts of the country where politicians have been trying to block out pipelines and impair our energy industry," Kenney was widely quoted as saying.

One of his less temperate shadow cabinet members Tweeted that Alberta is "being screwed by Confederation" and suggested the province should change the name of its Legislature to the National Assembly. Too late to prevent the inevitable screenshots, Richard Gotfried deleted that offending Tweet.

Derek Fildebrandt, the well-known marksman kicked out of the UCP Opposition caucus by Kenney, picked up on the same sovereignty association theme. "The time has come to hold a referendum on renegotiating our constitutional relationship with the federals to keep our wealth & decision making here at home," said the Independent MLA, who nowadays seems to serve as a mechanism for the UCP to test market its sillier ideas.

NDP Finance Minister Joe Ceci took a more moderate tone, but also indicated the Alberta Government is dissatisfied with the formula. "I think there are problems with the equalization program that I'm going to continue to raise when I go down to Ottawa," he said. This, of course, won't be nearly enough for Kenney.

Naturally, Kenney is not anxious to concede that, economically speaking, things are getting better fast as Alberta comes out of the recession, presumably for fear Ceci and the province's NDP government might get some of the credit.

Nevertheless, his anger with the way equalization is distributed is extremely odd, seeing as the formula in question was cooked up by the government of Stephen Harper at a time he sat at the cabinet table as one of the Conservative prime minister's most trusted advisors.

But while Kenney's current gripe may seem more ironic than most owing to the fact he once vociferously defended the formula he's now complaining about, he is only one of many Western Canadian politicians saying such things -- and having their commentary treated with reverence by mainstream media.

Odder still is the bizarre claim by politicians and media that the Liberal federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau somehow sprang this plan to renew the current Harper-Kenney equalization formula on an unwitting opposition and country, hiding it deep in the bowels of the 2018 Budget Implementation Act.

Now, as a technical bill, the budget-implementation legislation given final approval by the Senate on June 14 may not have been clear to every layperson, but the 2018 budget introduced by Finance Minister Bill Morneau on Feb. 28 was as clear as a windowpane in this regard.

The budget set out the Trudeau Government's equalization plan unequivocally in terms any Canadian with a grade school education could understand. It's on page 317, if you want to read it for yourself.

So what's with the Conservative Party of Canada's claim, and that of some provincial politicians and their media cheerleaders, that the five-year extension of the existing formula was a deceitful surprise sprung on them by the Ottawa Liberals?

Political columnist Don Braid of the Calgary Herald, in a particularly striking example, called it a sneaky ploy, a unilateral renewal, sheer nose-thumbing gall, a dodge, an April Fool (owing to the date of implementation), secretive, rigged and stupid.

In reality, not only was the 2018 budget perfectly transparent about the government's intentions -- "renewal of Equalization and Territorial Formula Financing (TFF) for a five-year period beginning April 1, 2019" -- but the Conservative Opposition in Ottawa, closely tied to Kenney's UCP, as well as myriad provincial officials of all stripes across Canada, had until June 14, when the Budget Implementation Act passed third reading in the Senate, to raise the issue.

If you don't count the busy February day the budget was introduced and the day the Senators gave it their final OK, that's 105 full days.

And we're supposed to believe nobody outside the sneaky Liberal Party knew anything about this until June 21, when a story appeared in The Globe and Mail saying "Ottawa has quietly renewed the equalization formula to keep it in its current form to 2024"? The Globe story went on, without irony, to say, "the move seems to have caught those looking for changes to the sometimes contentious federal program off-guard."

Seriously?

Either the entire vast staff of the Official Opposition in Ottawa and those of 10 provincial and three territorial governments noticed nothing -- in which case both federal Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer and his Alberta counterpart Kenney should be looking for some additional political staff -- or someone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

Yes, there are 367 pages in the 2018 Budget. At that rate, to find it the multitudinous Conservative staffers in Ottawa and their numberless provincial and territorial counterparts in all parties would have had to read … almost 3.5 pages a day!

Or, since this is such a red-hot issue in Conservative circles, they could have used the search function on the PDF to check for the word "equalization."

And yet no one noticed? Not a single high-paid Conservative MP in Ottawa bothered to look at the budget for himself or herself to see the government's plan spelled out?

This is not the universal view of mainstream media, which seems to have missed the story too, but notwithstanding the traditional Western Canadian caterwauling about equalization, I doubt the Trudeau government even thought the renewal of the Harper-Kenney equalization formula would be particularly controversial. Consider the authors, after all.

And even if they did -- and really did try to sneak it past us buried deep inside the budget -- there is no excuse for the well staffed and generously funded Opposition led by Scheer, whose job is to oppose the policies of the government and propose alternatives, to have missed it.

The failure of the Opposition to raise this issue until it had been passed by Parliament can only be described as Scheer incompetence and laziness, or as an actual attempt by the leadership of the Conservative Party to deceive us about what happened. Maybe both.

This is what often happens when you don’t have many government MPs from Alberta, I guess. It's been obvious for years that nothing sells more Conservative party memberships here in Wild Rose Country than ginning up faux outrage about Quebec and equalization. Here we go again.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David Climenhaga

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