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Author: Jared Wesley, Associate Professor, Political Science, University of Alberta
The âyesâ side won the recent Alberta referendum to remove equalization from the Canadian Constitution. Under normal circumstances, that would be enough to trigger a new round of negotiations with the rest of Canada.
But events surrounding the vote cast doubt on both the clarity of the question and the level of public support. And Prime Minister Jason Kenney’s own comments undermine the premise that he is even seeking constitutional reform in the first place.
Since it has neither the mandate nor the intention to convene a constitutional conference, the rest of Canada should reject the Prime Minister’s invitation. By the Government of Alberta’s own standards, the results of their referendum on equalization do not meet the criteria necessary to bring the premiers and the premier to the table.
Kenney says the referendum results reflect a “clear majority” on a “clear question” and therefore represent a “legitimate attempt by a participant in Confederation to seek a constitutional amendment.”
He drew these three criteria from what is known as a reference to secession, a Supreme Court ruling that his advisers say forces the rest of Canada to negotiate in good faith with Alberta.
This is an incorrect interpretation of the reference, which Supreme Court justices explicitly limited to votes for independence. Yet the logic of the Alberta government poses even greater problems.
A clear question, a legitimate attempt?
The wording of the referendum question was straightforward:
âShould subsection 36 (2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 – the commitment of the Parliament and the Government of Canada to the principle of equalization payments – be deleted from the Constitution?
By describing the potential results of a âyesâ vote, however, the government – and even the provincial election agency – misled voters.
Despite the current wording, the Prime Minister insists that the referendum was never intended to actually change the Constitution. This would require the support of a majority of provinces, many of which receive equalization payments from the federal government.
Instead, the premier said the referendum was meant to publicize Albertans’ frustrations with Confederation and provide it with “leverage” to get a “fair deal” for Alberta.
The Fair Deal includes changes to a host of federal laws and policies, none of which has anything to do with the Constitution.
This framing undermines the Prime Minister’s claim that the referendum was a âlegitimate attemptâ to trigger constitutional change. Premiers should reject the premise of his bet.
The “yes” were more numerous than the “no” during this referendum. The overall level of popular support for constitutional change is less certain, however, given the very low level of voter participation.
Most estimate the turnout in the referendum at around 40 percent. If we multiply the turnout by the share of all “yes” votes cast – 62% of valid votes – we come to a striking conclusion: less than one in four of all eligible voters in the world. Alberta has spoken out in favor of removing equalization from the Constitution.
This is a very low level of popular support, even by the Prime Minister’s own standards.
One in four is roughly the same proportion of eligible voters who conferred a majority of seats in Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party in 2015 (23%) – a result Kenney called “accidental,” implying that it was an illegitimate majority.
One in four is also dangerously close to the threshold the government recently set for citizens to voluntarily initiate constitutional referendums. Under this law, constitutional questions require the signatures of 20 percent of eligible voters in two-thirds of Alberta’s provincial ridings to even be considered by the government for a provincial referendum.
Given low turnout and high levels of ‘no’ support in urban areas, the results of the equalization referendum are unlikely to be clear, even if the bar is low.
By the standards of the government itself, this is a weak base on which to build a popular mandate for constitutional reform. But the final decision is not theirs.
Mandate for change?
Quoting the reference to secession, Kenney notes “that it will be up to political actors to determine what constitutes ‘a clear majority on a clear question'” with regard to the results of constitutional referendums like the one Alberta has just held. hold on.
These speakers include the Prime Minister and other premiers, all of whom have good reason to doubt that obscure messages, questionable intentions and low turnout in Alberta are enough to call a constitutional conference on Equalization.
Ultimately, it will be they – and not Kenney, the pundits, political agents, or academics – who will determine whether Alberta has forced them to sit at the table, let alone have the clout to bring them to the table. sell at a fair price.
As with the referendum itself, there are strong arguments for saying “no”.
Jared Wesley receives competitive grant funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Kule Institute for Advanced Studies (KIAS) and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA).
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Jared Wesley, Associate Professor, Political Science, University of Alberta, The Conversation