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John Ivison: Jason Kenney needs to play it cool to deal with Wexit heat

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. Eastern Liberals like Kathleen Wynne on CTV’s Question Period spent the weekend accusing Alberta Premier Jason Kenney of “fanning the flames” of Western separatism.

Those closer to the action could only shake their heads and point out that Kenney is Canada’s best hope for taking the sting out of a Wexit movement that is becoming ever more venomous.

Sources close to Kenney note his frustration that he is being denounced as perfidious by people who should know better.

“This is a very, very delicate situation,” said one government insider, pointing to polls that show support for Western separatism is running at around 30 per cent.

The Alberta government’s own polling suggests that around half of those people are firm separatists, while the other half are waiting to see what happens in Kenney’s dealings with Justin Trudeau’s re-elected federal government.

The problem for Ottawa is deeper and broader than the angry minority – polls also suggest 75-80 per cent of Albertans sympathize with the separatist sentiment. That is of particular concern to Kenney’s United Conservative Party since nearly half its voters fall into that camp. “We have to move on it as a domestic political issue,” said the government source. “We are one credible separatist leader away from this being a serious problem for Alberta and for Canada.”

Kenney has laid out a series of measures that are within the federal government’s gift, and others that a panel of Albertans is exploring, such as collecting the province’s taxes, withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and ending Alberta’s contract with the RCMP.

Kenney’s sense is that the frustration is diffuse and could be harnessed if given a constructive outlet. He is calling on the federal government to take immediate action to mollify separatist anger – offer a fixed completion date commitment for the TMX pipeline; an “equalization rebate” by retroactively lifting the Fiscal Stabilization program cap, and making changes to the Impact Assessment Act, the controversial former bill C-69. (The Fiscal Stabilization program allows the federal government to provide financial assistance to provinces faced with year over year declines in non-resource revenues greater than five per cent. It was capped at $60 per person for Alberta in 1987, meaning the province was only eligible to receive a total of $251 million for 2015/16 and 2016/17, instead of the $1.6 billion and $630 million it might have received otherwise. Alberta now wants the $1.72 billion it was “short-changed”).

Kenney may well be playing with fire but he has the blaze under control so far

It may be that the premier and the prime minister can find common cause. To the surprise of just about everyone, in the readout of his meeting with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe last week, Trudeau not only reiterated his commitment to complete the construction of TMX, which already has 2,200 people working on its construction, he also asked Moe to provide suggestions for improvements to the Impact Assessment Act and said he would consider suggestions for improvements to federal transfers, including the Fiscal Stabilization program.

Kenney may well be playing with fire but he has the blaze under control so far. The concern is that he may go too far in conciliating those parts of his constituency less wedded to the idea of a united Canada that he is.

Footage emerged from the weekend of UCP organizer Craig Chandler, who supports Wexit, saying he had talked to Kenney, who had in turn encouraged the separatist message. “He said ‘more power to you, get that message out there’,” said Chandler. He was also reported as saying Kenney plans to introduce legislation allowing citizen initiated referenda that would make it possible for Alberta to hold a referendum on secession.

This is an old Reform Party enthusiasm that the UCP considered including in its platform in the 2019 election. It plays to the party’s grassroots but it also offers the prospect of a David Cameron-style Brexit vote, the nervous breakdown in the Conservative Party that is likely to break Britain. Cameron is said to have been relaxed about proposing the Brexit referendum because he thought he’d be in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and they would block it – one of the epic post-war political miscalculations.

British Columbia has its own referenda process, through which citizens killed the harmonized sales tax in 2010. B.C. requires 10 per cent of voters in each electoral district to approve for a petition to succeed – a level the Wexit movement may already have reached.

Former Alberta finance minister, Ted Morton, outlined Kenney’s dilemma at the Manning Centre’s Alberta conference this fall. “If he goes too fast, he loses moderates, but if he goes too slow, he risks Wexit and other groups rising up,” he said.

Tossing the prospect of a citizen initiated referendum into that combustible mix would be like adding weeping gelignite.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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