Montreal — On October 18, Albertans will vote on whether they think the principle of equalization should be removed from the Canadian constitution.
New research from the Institute for Research on Public Policy’s Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation shows that whether people support equalization depends largely on their attachment to their province and country — and on how they perceive Quebec. To reduce the politicization of the program, the paper’s authors recommend reforming the program’s governance structure and revising the equalization formula to adapt it to changing economic circumstances.
In their IRPP Insight (in French, with an English summary) and accompanying Policy Options op-ed, co-authors Olivier Jacques, Daniel Béland and André Lecours are among the first to systematically analyze Canadian public opinion on the federal equalization program, which transfers money to provinces whose ability to raise revenues falls below the national average. They find that the majority of Canadians think the program is a good thing. Opposition to equalization is strongest in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and it is driven by a combination of identification with one’s province and resentment toward Quebec’s place in the federation.
“Our research shows that the more people identify with Canada as a whole, the greater their sense of cross-country solidarity. That solidarity increases support for redistributing resources to poorer areas, regardless of whether one lives in a ‘have’ or a ‘have not’ province,” Jacques explains. “In contrast, people with strong identification with a province are less likely to support equalization payments.”
But that is not the only thing that matters. Belief that Quebec holds favoured status within Canada also lowers support for equalization. In the west, the argument has long been made that Quebec benefits disproportionately from equalization and stands in the way of pipeline projects deemed crucial to Alberta. The authors argue that it is more advantageous for politicians to reinforce the perception that their jurisdiction’s economic problems are caused by the federal government or Quebec than to convince their constituents to accept necessary reforms.
“In a federal system, it’s always tempting for some politicians to blame other jurisdictions for local ills,” notes Jacques. “It’s too easy to use equalization as a scapegoat for alienation and unfair treatment. Improving the program could lead to a greater sense of national unity for all provinces — and avoid future pointless referendums.”
Identité et ressentiment : expliquer le soutien au programme fédéral de péréquation, by Olivier Jacques, Daniel Béland and André Lecours, can be downloaded from the website of the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation. (centre.irpp.org).
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