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EDITORIAL: Could you pass an exam on equalization?

The Alberta government's promised "energy war room" has a new name and will be officially operational within weeks, Premier Jason Kenney told a Calgary business crowd on Tuesday.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wants to reopen the books on equalization. — Azin Ghaffari photo

So, Alberta’s premier, Jason Kenney, is threatening to hold a referendum to find out if there’s support in his province to end the federal equalization program and “to assert our fight for fairness to the top of the national agenda.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the opposition Progressive Conservatives are also calling for a referendum on the federal program, in order to rejig the program to allow Newfoundland and Labrador to receive equalization funding. (Right now, neither Alberta nor Newfoundland and Labrador receives equalization payments. Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Manitoba are the provinces that do.)

The equalization program is meant to even out the economic playing field across the country; provinces with weak economies get money, while provinces with strong economies do not.

It’s all based on a concept known as fiscal capacity — the ability of individual provinces to raise revenues to fund their provincial programs.

Chances are, if you sampled 100 people on any street in the country, only about three would be able to explain all the ins and outs. (OK, maybe three out of 100 is a bit generous.)

Often, it’s seen as poorer provinces taking money from the richer ones. It’s not. The money comes from general federal revenues, which means that it doesn’t actually “take” money from richer provinces — it simply distributes the money it collects, arguably along the line of provincial needs.

But forget facts; bashing equalization is a regular function of provincial governments of almost all stripes, though it is one of the more esoteric fights.

Chances are, if you sampled 100 people on any street in the country, only about three would be able to explain all the ins and outs. (OK, maybe three out of 100 is a bit generous.)

Primarily, public debates about equalization involve large numbers of people having their eyes glaze over, while a handful of interested equalization aficionados battle stridently about how fiscal capacity should be determined and how many federal transfer payments can dance on the head of a pin.

So, if we do actually decide to hold expensive equalization referendums, let’s at least do something to ensure that the results are not just political chest-beating. (It’s hard to imagine that the minutia of federal funding will bring swarms of people to polling stations, but you never know.)

As potential voters arrive, they should be handed a 25-question multiple choice exam requiring them to have at least a basic knowledge of how the program works. (We’ll keep it simple — there won’t be any essay questions.)

It would be the kind of test that poll captains could grade with a matrix, and if you get 75 per cent or better, you’d be allowed to have a ballot.

If you didn’t, you’d be sent on your way.

The down side? Most people probably wouldn’t get to vote.

The up side? All the votes would be counted in 15 minutes or so, and the results could be comfortably shelved until the next transfer payment tempest.

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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