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Alberta’s Bill 18 is another strategy from Quebec’s playbook

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith

The control Smith seeks over federal spending in the province is also guided by ideological considerations. (File photo: Danielle Smith/Facebook)

(French version available ici)

An attempt by Alberta to strengthen the province’s control over the federal government’s relationship with “provincial entities” once again points to strong intergovernmental tensions.

Bill 18 was tabled on April 10 and, if passed into law, would allow Alberta to explore any agreements between Ottawa and municipalities, universities and health authorities. This, in turn, would determine how they accessed housing and health care dollars.

From a constitutional perspective it seems clear: legislative and policy-making power over municipalitiesS belongs to the provinces. But the growing responsibilities of municipal governments, combined with the federal government’s increased budgetary power, are exacerbating intergovernmental tensions between Ottawa and the provinces.

Municipalities need money for housing and infrastructure. The federal government has the resources and willingness to contribute to development in these areas. Why wouldn’t provinces accept federal funding, even if it meant accepting parameters for how the money would be spent?

For Quebec, it is a matter of principle: the spirit and letter of the division of power must be scrupulously respected.

A law passed by the Parti Québécois (PQ) government in 1984 prohibits municipalities from entering into an agreement with another government in Canada without provincial approval. The law is in line with Quebec’s idea of ​​federalism, in which specific legislative and policy-making power should be assumed by the Canadian or a provincial government.

This serves to protect Quebec’s autonomy in that Ottawa cannot necessarily spend money in areas under provincial jurisdiction, even if it has the capacity to do so.

Albertans Bill 18 aims to adopt this approach, but would expand it to other provincial agencies.

Not surprisingly, Premier Danielle Smith’s United Conservative government is once again turning to Quebec as a source of policy ideas to defend provincial autonomy. Other policy proposals discussed in Alberta have drawn inspiration from previous Quebec initiatives, something that was already evident under former Premier Jason Kenney.

They include an income-related public pension program (the Quebec Pension Plan created in the mid-1960s), a provincial police force (the Sûreté du Québec, founded in 1870), and referendums to make important collective decisions and potentially increase political influence over the federal government to increase. government (the 1980 and 1995 referendums on sovereignty).

While there is strong support in Quebec for many of these past measures, including the restrictions imposed on municipalities, it is unclear that such a consensus exists in Alberta. For example, the creation of a pension plan in Alberta does not appear to have sufficient popular support or sufficient political will to become a reality.

Bill 18 is more abstract than other potential measures outlined above aimed at promoting provincial autonomy. What the bill aims to achieve is probably lower hanging fruit politically than, for example, the pension proposal, which is much riskier for the politicians who promote it.

That said, the bill has faced strong criticism from key constituencies in Alberta, including from the mayors of both Calgary and Edmonton, the province’s two largest cities.

The policy consequences of the Smith government’s Quebec-style approach are unclear. The idea that many policy problems are best solved by governments that are closer to the population and that can devise solutions tailored to specific situations is generally correct.

That logic is inherent to federalism. Still, that reasoning could justify the need to recognize the right of municipalities — who know more about local needs than their provincial masters — to make their own deals with the federal government.

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Conversely, such reasoning could legitimize an opposition to the perceived interference of the federal government in municipal and provincial affairs. A possible way out of this tension could be to promote cooperation between all three levels of government, but negotiating agreements between three rather than two players is difficult.

Political scientist Jared Wesley of the University of Alberta points out that intergovernmental agreements are very labor-intensive from a policy perspective. Partly because of this and partly because reaching an agreement could take more time than reaching bilateral agreements in Ottawa, federal investments in key policy areas such as housing and public transportation could take more time.

This is something that has happened in Quebec in the recent past.

A Quebec-style approach in Alberta could pose a new challenge for the Smith government. Although the Prime Minister wants to reduce red tape and bureaucracy, acting as an intermediary between provincial organizations and the federal government would likely lead to significantly higher administrative costs.

The control Smith seeks over federal spending in the province is also guided by ideological considerations.

The latest attempt to increase Alberta’s autonomy via Bill 18 is directly related to the political differences between Smith and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. For example, Smith’s government has very different policy views than Trudeau’s Liberals on energy and the environment.

These differences, in addition to Smith’s need to appease the regionalist faction of the United Conservative Party, explain why Alberta is once again trying to imitate Quebec. The question is whether this move and its potential policy consequences will ultimately benefit Albertans.

The authors would like to thank Enid Slack and Jared Wesley for their comments and suggestions.

This article first appeared on Policy Options and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.