It’s time to put ‘equal’ back in Canada’s broken equalization system

Member of Legislative Assembly Report

By Brian Jean, Leader of the Oficial Opposition

BRIAN JEAN, MLA of Fort McMurray-Conklin

BRIAN JEAN, MLA of Fort McMurray-Conklin

On Monday, all provincial politicians will have an opportunity to start making real changes to a broken equalization system through one single vote.

And it’s long overdue. Over the past year, an independent set of experts developed the Equalization Fairness Report commissioned by the Wildrose Caucus.

Many of its findings were stunning. Between 2007 and 2014, Alberta sent $190 billion more to Ottawa than came back to our province in transfers or services. That’s an average of more than $20 billion a year and more than 10 times the value of our Heritage Savings Trust Fund.

Right now, that’s money that could help Alberta reduce its record-level deficit, pay down the debt, build infrastructure, reduce wait times in health care or fund new judges to make sure criminals are punished for their crimes.

It’s why I, with the support of my Wildrose colleagues, will introduce a motion Monday asking the government form a position for Alberta to negotiate a better deal when the next round of equalization negotiations begin in 2018. This is exactly what Quebec’s provincial government did before the last round and we can no longer allow other provinces take the lead on an issue so critical to Albertans.

The fact is, when Alberta has seen record job losses and its unemployment rate steadily increase in cities across the province, people are right to be concerned. They are right to be upset. They are right to wonder why we are still sending so many hard-earned tax dollars to other provinces.

However, to date, NDP Finance Minister Joe Ceci has repeatedly said fixing equalization is not a priority for his government. We hope MLAs in his party will begin to change their tune.

Equalization was first designed to ensure all regions would be able to access the same services for relatively the same levels of taxation.

But that’s not what is happening. Right now, taxpayers in traditional “have” provinces like Alberta are handing over a $10 billion blank cheque to Quebec to help subsidize much cheaper tuition rates than students in Alberta pay here. In 2012, daycare fees in Alberta were about 550% higher than in Quebec.

Beyond equalization, there is fundamental unfairness with how Canada’s employment insurance program is managed between regions, putting Alberta at a severe disadvantage.

Here’s what I mean: The Equalization Fairness Report found over 90% of the unemployed in Newfoundland, P.E.I. and New Brunswick receive EI benefits, compared with about 55% in Quebec and about 38% for Ontario and Alberta. In 2013, Albertans paid $1.9 billion more into EI than we received back in benefits. Albertans are also paying billions more each year than our government gets back in provincial health and social transfers.

Albertans are instinctively kind, generous and compassionate to our neighbours. It’s what makes Alberta the best place in the world, but we are also tired of seeing our contributions taken for granted and going into a broken system.

We can simply no longer afford the status quo and the opportunity for Alberta to address this fundamental unfairness has never been greater.

Over the past several years, the Saskatchewan government has indicated time and time again that it is looking for partners to help reform a broken equalization system.

Alberta has an opportunity to build on this strategic partnership with one of its closest allies in confederation and present a united front to Ottawa starting now. The fact is, the equalization formula will never be reformed if we try and go it alone or leave it to the last minute.

Albertans are generous, but a reform of the equalization system is long overdue. I hope the government and all parties in the legislature will support our work to get Alberta a fairer deal.

Brian Jean is the Leader for the Official Opposition Party and Member of Legislative for Fort McMurray-Conklin. Jean can be reached by email at fortmcmurray.conklin@assembly.ab.ca or by phone at 780-588-7979. 

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