The yes side won a recent referendum in Alberta to remove the equation from the Canadian Constitution. Under normal circumstances, this would be enough to trigger a new round of negotiations with the rest of Canada.
But the events surrounding the vote cast doubt on both the clarity of the issue and the level of public support. And Prime Minister Jason Kenny’s own comments disprove the suggestion that he is seeking constitutional reform at all.
Since he has neither the mandate nor the intention to convene a constitutional conference, the rest of Canada must decline the prime minister’s invitation. By the Alberta government’s own standards, the results of the equalization referendum do not meet the criteria required to sit down at the negotiating table between prime ministers and prime minister.
Kenny says the referendum results reflect a “clear majority” on a “clear issue” and thus represent “a legitimate attempt by one member of the Confederation to seek a constitutional amendment.”
He drew these three criteria from a so-called appeal to secession, a Supreme Court decision that his advisers believe compels the rest of Canada to negotiate in good faith with Alberta.
This is an inaccurate interpretation of the link, which the Supreme Court justices clearly limited to independence votes. But there are even bigger problems with the logic of the Alberta government.
Clear question, legitimate attempt?
The wording of the referendum question was straightforward:
“Should Section 36 (2) of the 1982 Constitutional Act — the commitment of Parliament and the Government of Canada to the principle of equalization payments be removed from the Constitution?
However, by describing the possible outcome of the yes vote, the government – and even the provincial electoral agency – led voters astray.
Despite the actual wording, The prime minister insists that the referendum was never intended to actually change the constitution… This will require the support of most provinces, many of which receive compensation payments from the federal government.
Instead of, prime minister said The referendum was intended to publicly declare Albert’s frustration with the Confederation and provide him with “leverage” to strike a “fair deal” for Alberta.
A Fair Deal includes changes to many federal laws and policies, none of which have anything to do with the Constitution.
This formulation undermines the prime minister’s assertion that the referendum was a “legitimate attempt” to bring about constitutional change. The first ministers must reject the premise of his gambit.
A clear majority?
In this referendum, the number of “for” votes exceeded the number of “against” votes. However, the overall level of popular support for constitutional amendments is less certain given the very low level of voter participation.
The majority estimate the turnout in the referendum at about 40 percent. If we multiply the turnout by the percentage of all votes cast in favor – 62 percent of the total votes cast – we arrive at a startling conclusion: less than one in four of all Alberta eligible voters are in favor of canceling the equalization. Constitution.
This is a very low level of popular support, even by the standards of the prime minister himself.
One in four is roughly the same proportion of eligible voters who provided the New Democratic Party majority seats to Rachel Notley in 2015 (23 percent) – a result that Kenny once called “random,” implying that it was an illegal majority.
One in four is also dangerously close to the threshold recently set by the government for citizens to voluntarily initiate constitutional referendums. Under this legislation, constitutional issues require signatures of 20 percent of eligible voters in two-thirds of Alberta’s provincial counties for the government to even consider holding a provincial referendum.
Given the low turnout and high “no” support in urban areas, it is unlikely that the balancing referendum results will help overcome even this low bar.
By government standards, this is a weak foundation upon which to build a public mandate for constitutional reform. But the final decision is not for them.
Mandate for Change?
Referring to the reference to secession, Kenny notes that “political actors will have to define what constitutes a clear majority on a clear issue” when it comes to the results of constitutional referendums like the one Alberta just held.
These stakeholders include the prime minister and other prime ministers, all of whom have good reason to doubt whether the vague messages, dubious intentions and low turnout in Alberta are sufficient to call for a constitutional equalization conference.
After all, it is they, and not Kenny, experts, politicians or academics, who will determine whether Albert got them to sit down at the negotiating table, let alone get them to sell them on a fair deal.
As with the referendum itself, there are good reasons to say no.