They were shocking words indeed from Alberta MP Tom Linkletter, demanding answers from provinces about how they spend federal transfer funds.
“Where do the funds come from? Well, tax money,” he said. “And who’s kind of primarily footing the bill on the tax revenue in this country? It’s Alberta. Don’t you think that the other provinces have a slight responsibility to say, first of all, ‘Thank you’? Second of all, ‘Here’s how we’re spending it.’”
Actually, there’s no MP from Alberta named Tom Linkletter. He’s a fictional character from the CBC Radio satire This is That. But are his words not imbued with something truthy? I bet a lot of Albertans would agree with him, if only he were real.
Well, here’s a real question, one that gets asked a lot: Does federal equalization turn Maritimers into dependent slobs content to live off the avails of harder-working Canadians? Many people think it does.
Using equalization as a club to bash the supposed culture of entitlement in the Maritimes and in Quebec is a great way to stimulate regional resentments. It’s simplistic in the extreme, but it’s out there so it must be faced, specifically by political leaders.
The current equalization formula expires next year and the provinces are expecting to negotiate with Ottawa for a new one. However, I haven’t seen anything on the record which commits the Harper government to actually negotiate anything. It might simply impose a new formula, as it did in 2011 on health-care funding. It was pure simplicity: Take it or leave it.
This is serious stuff for Nova Scotia, where about a third of annual government revenues come via federal transfers. Nova Scotians pay into the kitty at the same rate as all Canadians, but as a province, we draw out more than we put in. We also have more federal offices, bureaucrats and military spending than other parts of the country.
People are taking notice and few seem content with our age-old system. Ontario’s newspapers and politicians are full of complaints about how its citizens tolerate poorer services than those in other equalization have-nots.
Absent some change, Ontario could launch a constitutional challenge to the current system, based on the rule that equalization must provide roughly equal public services to all Canadians.
There’s also plentiful commentary arguing that equalization doesn’t work for anyone, not even the have-nots. Provinces not receiving transfers are penalized for participating in federal Canada: Money flows out of Alberta and doesn’t come back.
At the same time, provinces that do receive transfers are slowly choking to death on their toxic dependence. That’s us.
With 2014 in their sights, conservative think-tanks like the Mowat Centre, Frontier Centre and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies are churning out equalization alarms.
David MacKinnon, an Islander who worked for governments in Nova Scotia and Ontario, writes about the myths around equalization: that it’s protected by the Constitution, that it’s managed according to rational principles and that it’s somehow the only source of well, equalization.
He argues that none of those statements is true. Only the principle of equalization is enshrined, not the payments. As to rational management, Ottawa doesn’t even analyze whether the system meets its goals. And there are plenty of other equalization transfers, like all those federal jobs in have-not provinces.
Don McIver of AIMS agrees, and goes further. In a recent paper, he argued that equalization forces low-income Canadians to subsidize services also enjoyed by the wealthy. Downtrodden workers are taxed to maintain the entitlements of corporate fat cats.
MacKinnon, McIver et al. also argue that the quality of services is higher and there are more of them in provinces receiving equalization than in those contributing. Tell that to Maritimers seeing their local emergency rooms shut down, but that’s their argument.
Yet I do find it significant that you don’t hear the Conservative leadership bashing equalization. Perhaps that’s for another day. Stephen Harper doesn’t like squabbling with provinces.
But that’s no excuse for inaction here. Someone has to argue for sensible equalization reform now and not wait around for unpredictable events in 2014.