Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at yesterday's news conference (Photo: Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta)
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at yesterday's news conference (Photo: Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta).

Deeply unpopular with Alberta voters, distrusted by many in his own divided caucus, and with his United Conservative Party in financial disarray, Premier Jason Kenney will try to spin the 62-per-cent yes vote in his dishonestly worded, constitutionally meaningless, low-turnout, anti-equalization referendum as the hugest victory in the history of hugeness. 

That’s what Kenney does: When in doubt, he attacks the Trudeau government and tries to divide Canadians. If he doesn’t have anything persuasive with which to attack and divide, he’ll make up some new facts and do it anyway. 

So get used to it. Albertans can reasonably expect the flames from the premier’s gaslighting to burn so bright it’ll hardly matter that voters narrowly rejected his year-round-daylight-savings time referendum on Oct. 18. 

Indeed, upon release of the voting tallies yesterday, Kenney immediately claimed during a rambling, paranoid and at times unhinged news conference that the anti-equalization vote sends a “powerful” message to Ottawa, and demanded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “sit down and negotiate in good faith.” It does no such thing, of course. 

Given traditional Alberta attitudes about Canadian equalization — based on widespread misunderstanding of how the program works, in particular that Alberta doesn’t write a cheque to Quebec every month — there are recent years when the referendum would have been a slam dunk here in Wild Rose Country.

But as often happened with the Klein government’s risible Senate-nominee elections, large numbers of voters who didn’t approve of the stupidity of the exercise just ignored the ballot. 

So voters in another low-turnout province-wide municipal election said yes, although a majority voted no in Edmonton, the province’s capital and second largest city.

Since the province-wide turnout was only 33 per cent, one can credibly make the case that only about 22 per cent of eligible voters supported the proposition. In other words, roughly the same as Kenney’s current level of approval in several public opinion polls. 

If you count spoiled and blank ballots as well, though, the yes vote would dip to about 56 per cent, 18 per cent of eligible voters.

This wouldn’t matter in a Parliamentary or city council election where not voting is widely accepted to mean passive acknowledgement of the result. It is quite another matter in a referendum supposedly to influence Canada’s constitutional future. 

Kenney, who loves to act as if he’s a constitutional lawyer, pointed to the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in the 1998 Reference Re Secession of Quebec on the legality of Quebec separation, to argue the equalization referendum results require Ottawa to negotiate constitutional change. 

He didn’t bother to mention, though, that the court’s ruling also says the percentage of total eligible voters voting in such referenda matters too. Tweeted David Khan, a real constitutional lawyer, yesterday: “50%+1 of ELIGIBLE VOTERS — at a minimum required — for constitutional negotiations. (sic)”

Using the fact local elections were administered by municipalities as an excuse, the supposedly non-partisan Elections Alberta refused to break out a turnout number for the referendum votes.

Nor do the premier’s supporters mention the fact that a substantial group of voters — First Nations citizens — were for all intents and purposes disenfranchised by the fact there were no polling places in their often isolated communities. 

Kenney himself admitted in the lead-up to the vote that the referendum question had no real meaning so voters should use it to “send a message” of generalized grievance to Ottawa. The wording of the question on the ballot falsely implied Albertans have constitutional powers others lack. And the UCP used public resources to advocate for a yes vote, including misleading commentary on the Elections Alberta site. With all that, the outcome of the vote can fairly be described as a resounding dud. 

A recent poll by University of Alberta researchers indicated that 56 per cent of Albertans believed a yes vote would mean Alberta would “withdraw” from the equalization program. Elections Alberta’s explanation of the question, itself drafted by an Edmonton advertising agency, suggested this was so. 

So the sensible response by Ottawa is to politely ignore this nonsense. 

Negotiating in good faith with a government that consistently acts in bad faith would not be a helpful strategy for either Canada or Alberta. 

Nor would there be much point reminding Kenney of how either the Canadian Constitution or the equalization program work. He knows perfectly well. Reminding him that the current formula was devised by a federal Conservative cabinet of which he was an influential part won’t gain much traction either. The man has no shame. 

In case you missed it, Albertans don’t pay more into equalization than other Canadians, they pay the same, because all Canadians pay the same federal taxes and equalization payments come out of federal taxes. For Alberta to unilaterally withdraw from the program, Kenney would have to figure out a way for Albertans to withdraw from paying federal taxes!

If Kenney wants to change the formula by which those funds from all Canadians are distributed, he is welcome to advocate for a formula to replace the one that he and his colleagues in Stephen Harper’s cabinet came up with. 

If he truly wanted to change the Constitution to entirely eliminate equalization, he would still require the votes of two thirds of Canada’s Legislatures governing at least 50 per cent of the nation’s population. And when the dust had settled, no one in Alberta would pay more or less federal tax than any other Canadian in their tax bracket. 

Of course, that is not the goal here. The goal is somehow to find an issue on which the UCP can eke out re-election — because how it dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, managed the economy, or created new jobs sure as hell aren’t going to work!  

Three Senators-in-Waiting-for-Godot elected 

As for the “Senator-in-Waiting” election, Kenney did manage to get three of his supporters chosen by the limited number of voters who bothered to fill in the Senate section on their municipal ballot. 

Pam Davidson (18 per cent), Erika Barootes (17 per cent), and Mykhailo Martyniouk (11 per cent) — all affiliated with the Conservative Party of Canada — each managed to receive pluralities of less than 20 per cent of the votes cast from among the 13 candidates for the non-job.

Davidson, endorsed by the National Firearms Association and an anti-abortion group in past election attempts, was one of the organizers of Kenney’s controversial 2019 Christian prayer breakfast. Barootes was president of the UCP from May 2018 to December 2019. Martyniouk is president of the Association of Canadian Ukrainian Free Trade Agreement. 

Since Prime Minister Trudeau certainly understands no good would come from appointing any of these marginal types, it would be fair to call them Senators-in-Waiting-for-Godot.* 

The leading protest candidate, Senate abolition advocate Duncan Kinney, who campaigned under the slogan “Fuck Kenney, Vote Kinney” received 6 per cent of the vote, not that far behind Martyniouk.

But as one wag observed, with well over 400,000 blank or rejected ballots, the clear winner of the Senate election was “none of the above.”

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...