ANALYSIS | The race to lead Alberta runs through Ottawa

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There may be no two words uttered more in this United Conservative Party leadership race than “Sovereignty Act.”

That’s the Day-One-priority piece of legislation from front-runner Danielle Smith that seeks to allow Alberta to refuse to enforce federal laws deemed against provincial interest. 

It’s been a murky pool of constitutional questions, but it has also become the vehicle for Alberta’s grievances against the federal government.

“Ottawa” is heard almost as much as “Alberta” in this contest.

More Alberta, less Ottawa

So while we might hear that word repeated, the battle cry from Smith is “We need less Ottawa in our lives” so Alberta can adopt a “sovereign state of mind.” 

Her Sovereignty Act has vacuumed most of the oxygen in this race. The other candidates have been forced to talk about it, almost as much as Smith, mostly to criticize it. 

“We can’t wave a magic wand and get rid of federal law,” Travis Toews, another candidate, said at the latest debate. 

But even some of the other proposals for distancing Alberta from the federal government aren’t all that simpatico with the constitution. 

For example, Toews’ unique policy plank on asserting provincial autonomy would be to legislate targeted tariffs on goods and services from jurisdictions deemed hostile to Alberta, like other provinces.

At the last debate, Smith scolded Toews for criticizing her policy while arguing his own would violate the constitution.

It would likely be ruled a breach of the constitution’s interprovincial regulations as constitutional experts have observed..

(Toews’ approach is similar to the NDP’s ‘Turn off the taps’ policy to limit oil exports to other provinces. At the time, legal minds warned that bill would not hold up in court.)

“They pick fights they know they can’t win in order to look good fighting,” Jared Wesley, a researcher and political science professor at the University of Alberta, said. 

“When politicians don’t have answers to some pretty complex and intractable problems at home, they tend to lash out and blame things on Ottawa.”

United Conservative Party leadership candidates participated in the party’s final debate last week. UCP members will pick a new leader in October. (Manuel Carrillos Avalos/CBC)

Brian Jean wants to trigger constitutional negotiations with Ottawa immediately, including demanding the federal government not write laws that adversely impact any given province without agreement. Changes to the constitution require approval from seven provinces representing half of Canada’s population.

Rebecca Schulz is proposing a provincial rights strategy, which would include “disentanglement” of regulations that overlap provincial/federal jurisdiction. She also wants criteria for when Alberta might use turn-off-the-taps-style legislation. 

Todd Loewen is advocating for Alberta to have all the powers that Quebec has, including jurisdiction over taxes and pensions. 

Leela Aheer says Alberta needs to use the constitution to stand up for itself while finding wins working collaboratively with the federal government. 

Rajan Sawhney has vowed her strategy would not contravene federal law. Her platform says Alberta should run more programs and services within its jurisdiction. She’d also appoint a minister of intergovernmental affairs

While all of the UCP leadership candidates have jumped into the sovereignty debate, it’s been silence from federal leaders on the subject.

Pensions and police and taxes, oh my

The seven candidates have also mused about how Alberta could claw back more regulatory power from Ottawa.

Exploring an Alberta pension plan is a policy point in Smith, Toews, Schulz and Sawhney’s platforms. 

A provincial police force, in one form or another, is on the table for most of them as well. Loewen is a big supporter, Schulz and Aheer are opposed, while Jean has discussed augmenting the RCMP. 

An Alberta Revenue Agency could be coming to a government department near you if Schulz becomes leader. Toews and Smith are also pushing for Alberta keeping a tighter fist on tax revenue. 

The candidates pushing for more autonomy have been walking a fine line between that and separatism. None of them have advocated for Alberta to saw itself off from the rest of the country à la Bugs Bunny.

A majority of Albertans who identified as federalists in a poll expressed discontent with how the province is treated by the federal government, according to research from Common Ground.

Let them freeze in the dark

The race has been largely focused on tensions with Ottawa, but the anger isn’t new. Remember famous quotes like “let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark” or “screw the West, we’ll take the rest”?

Now — intensified by societal divisions, a pandemic, and the debate over the province’s future in a push to net-zero emissions — candidates have made Ottawa the target as they jockey to become the next premier of Alberta. 

Albertans ranked highest for anger at the federal government, according to a Pollara survey (though it had a relatively small sample size for the province). 

“It makes for good politics in a leadership election. It may even make good politics during a general election as we saw in 2019. But if Jason Kenney’s premiership is any indication, it makes for a poor governing strategy because eventually you’re going to have to address the issues that are underlying the anxiety,” Wesley said. 

These factors may be a preoccupation among UCP members, but research suggests they’re less of a priority for the broader population. 

Inflation, health care, and the economy were top issues according to polling earlier this year from Janet Brown Opinion Research. Only two per cent of people mentioned sovereignty or equalization. One per cent mentioned western alienation. Six per cent mentioned the federal government as a concern. 

The anger and anxiety aimed at the federal government is real and old, but the factors contributing to those emotions have been heightened – and are being amplified by the UCP contestants. It’s one thing to run a leadership race on them, but recent examples show it may prove trickier to govern on them. 

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