There’s nothing ‘independent’ or ‘blue-ribbon’ about the Wildrose Party’s ‘Equalization Fairness Panel’

Posted on March 02, 2016, 2:04 am
9 mins

PHOTOS: How the Frontier Centre views Canada’s Equalization Program. Oh! Wait! That’s a 19th Century temperance poster. Same difference, basically. Below: The Wildrose Party’s four Frontier-Centre-associated “equalization fairness” panelists: Frank Atkins, Marco Navarro-Genie, David MacKinnon and Ben Eisen. All photos grabbed from right-wing think tank sites except Mr. Navarro-Genie’s, which comes from the CBC.

All four members of the Wildrose Party’s “blue-ribbon,” “expert” panel on Ottawa’s provincial Equalization Program have close ties the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

The Frontier Centre, in turn, is a far-right corporate-financed “think tank” based on the model of the Fraser Institute that has long made a particular hobbyhorse of its opposition to the federal Equalization Program.

AtkinsFrankSo having four people associated with this organization making pronouncements about the Equalization Program is rather like asking four members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, as laudable as the latter organization’s goals may be, as the only members of an “expert” panel looking into provincial liquor sales.

They may be experts on the effects of demon rum, but their recommendations are predetermined by a particular set of beliefs.

Likewise, the Wildrose Party’s “Equalization Fairness Panel” will make recommendations that are predetermined by a particular set of beliefs and political goals – in this case, the Frontier Centre’s consistent neoliberal attack on interprovincial equalization and the Wildrose Party’s desire to use the widely misunderstood program as a wedge issue against New Democrats in Edmonton and Liberals in Ottawa.

marco-navarro-genieSo, whatever you may think of the pros and cons of the 59-year-old equalization system through which federal taxpayers in all parts of Canada, and federal taxpayers alone, reduce fiscal disparities among provinces, it’s important to remember that the Wildrose panel is nothing more than a political gimmick.

There is no way the panel’s members can be fairly described as “blue ribbon” or “leading experts on equalization from across the country” in the sense normally implied by such words, that is, that this is an impartial, broad-based panel set up to deliver insights and recommendations with the country’s and province’s interests at heart.

The statement on the Wildrose Party’s website that it is an “independent” panel is completely false by any commonsense definition of the term.

It is clear this quartet of Frontier Centre “experts” has two goals:

  1. To grind the Frontier Centre’s anti-equalization axe
  2. To get the Wildrose Party elected as the government of Alberta

No matter how wrong-headed, both are perfectly acceptable goals in a democratic society. But no one should be fooled by the Wildrose Party’s invitation to make submissions that by doing so they are in any way doing anything but helping the party’s political program and publicizing the think tank’s neoliberal economic nostrums, which are closely related.

david-mackinnonTo confirm this, let’s look at details form the four panel members’ biographies, as provided by the Wildrose Party itself:

  • Frank Atkins: He “is currently Research Chair, Finance and Capital Markets at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy,” begins the Wildrose biographical sketch of this panel member. He was also, it startlingly goes on, former prime minister Stephen Harper’s MA supervisor at the University of Calgary. Mr. Harper’s views of the impact of equalization on Atlantic Canada are well known.
  • Ben Eisen: The “Associate Director of Provincial Prosperity Studies at the Fraser Institute” also worked as “Assistant Research Director for the Frontier Centre.” He also worked for a third corporate-financed think tank according to this biographical sketch.
  • David MacKinnon: Mr. MacKinnon is the only one of the four panel members who does not appear to have worked principally for neoliberal think tanks throughout his career, actually working as a department director in the Nova Scotia government for five years. He is the only panel member whose bio does not list a connection to the Frontier Centre – although a quick Google search reveals, on the Frontier Centre’s own website no less, that he is a “research fellow” of that organization. A very long list of links illuminates his history of campaigning against equalization.
  • Marco Navarro-Genie: Head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax, yet another corporate bankrolled neoliberal think tank, “he served as Vice-President of Research at the Prairie-based Frontier Centre.

Interestingly, throughout most of its history, the Equalization Program has not been particularly controversial in Canada. This is probably because its revenues come from all federal taxpayers, and hence Ontarians have always been the largest group of payers by province, and because at various points in its history all provinces have received equalization payments. Zero funds for equalization come from provincial coffers.

Ben-Eisen-258-x-339A study on Alberta and equalization published in 2012 by Dr. Melville McMillan of the University of Alberta’s Economics Department noted that “media attention to equalization appears to stem mostly from reports and arguments emerging from a small number of organizations, most notably the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.” (Emphasis added.)

“The products from the Frontier Centre have been uniformly critical of Equalization and, more generally, other federal-provincial transfers and federal activities resulting in some interprovincial redistribution,” Professor McMillan noted.

“One of the more receptive avenues” for this propaganda, Dr. McMillan added, “has been the National Post, a newspaper that declares that it would be pleased to see equalization and its affiliates killed.”

And remember, Dr. McMillan wrote this literally years before the idea of a ginned-up panel, complete with a “mandate letter” and a call for submissions as if this were a real government inquiry, was even a twinkle in Wildrose Leader Brian Jean’s eye.

I would recommend Dr. McMillian’s paper to anyone, including opponents of equalization, who would like to understand how the Equalization Program works and the essential role it plays in making Canada a nation.

Widespread misunderstanding of the program – many Albertans seem to believe the province, or even the oil companies that operate here, simply write a cheque to recipient provinces – has made it easy for the likes of Mr. Jean and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall to cynically use equalization as a wedge issue and a way to attack social programs in other provinces that provide too good an example to Albertans and their neighbours in Saskatchewan.

Still, one has to admire the sheer brass of the Wildrose Party for trying to pass this off as if it were a real government inquiry, with a legitimate non-partisan goal.

The Frontier Centre too has to be admired for its cheek for passing its operatives off as non-partisan researchers and getting away with taking part in political exercises like this one.

The Alberta media, though, should hang its head in shame for letting this nonsense pass into its reports without drawing readers’ and viewers’ attention to this obvious and telling connection between the Wildrose Party’s panel and the highly ideological Frontier Centre.

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12 Comments to: There’s nothing ‘independent’ or ‘blue-ribbon’ about the Wildrose Party’s ‘Equalization Fairness Panel’

    • Tom in Ontario

      March 2nd, 2016

      From the Harper MA masterpiece.

      “He (Dr. Atkins) went to considerable pains to keep on track a difficult student who frequently had other pressing priorities.”

      Like learning to tinkle the ivories and conquering the art of taping hockey sticks.

  1. Bob Raynard

    March 2nd, 2016

    In a column in the Edmonton Journal, in which he introduced his panel, Mr. Atkins cited Nova Scotia as an example of what was wrong with the equalization scheme. He criticized Nova Scotia for banning fracking, and hence the income that would come with it, then pleading poverty and applying for equalization.

    Another criticism of the scheme that has been floating through the media has been that the calculation process is such that it would take three years for Alberta to qualify. That pretty clearly suggests that they are also considering the very realistic scenario where Alberta would apply to receive equalization. Since one of the principles of the equalization scheme is that all provinces are supposed to apply similar levels of taxation, Alberta’s lack of a sales tax would surely leave Alberta open to the same criticism that Mr. Atkins levels at Nova Scotia. At least Nova Scotia banned fracking out of genuine environmental concern. Alberta has no sales tax because, well, ah, we don’t want one, dammit.

    If the panel is at all unbiased, it must mention that Alberta needs a sales tax. I love the mental image of the Wildrose Party working towards giving Alberta a PST.


    • anon

      March 2nd, 2016

      Isn’t a sales tax is irrelevant to equalization payments? Don’t those come out of Federal Income Tax payments by individuals and corporations? Federal Income Tax rates are set by the Federal Government.

      Why would taxes, royalties, dog licensing fees etc. imposed by the Alberta Government have an effect on equalization payments? Where is that written?

      Sales taxes are unfair to low and fixed income earners and only the wealthy and comfortable think they can be made so. Which may be why the same bunch doesn’t like progressive income taxes, especially for corporations.

      • Bob Raynard

        March 3rd, 2016

        Hi Anon,

        Imagine for a moment a province that imposed no tax at all – no income tax, property tax, sales tax, nothing. As a result they would have no funds at all to finance health, education etc. Since they have zero funds, they would be elegible for all sorts of equalization payments, even though doing so would clearly be unfair to provinces that did impose fair levels of taxation.

        As a result, one of the principles of the equalization process is that provinces must level fair rates of taxation before they can qualify to receive equalization payments. If they are not asking for payments then you ar correct – dog license fees are irrelevant. Thus my suggestion that the WRP, probably without realizing it, appears to be pushing Alberta toward a sales tax.

        • March 3rd, 2016

          And there you have it! WRP are warmed over Republicans. They will tax people into oblivion while giving corporate breaks because there is no business to be had.

          Brian Gene is a mouthpiece more than an automan to the point he’s almost irrelevant.

  2. March 2nd, 2016

    The Wild Rose have worked on their extreme positions for years constantly deluding the people in the LDS church prevalent across southern Alberta. Their cornerstone is doing away with the Balance of payments program and they deliberately ignore Alberta’s experience with the program. Their argument is now and always has been “the oil belongs to the oil companies; left wing types are trying to take it away”

    Alberta received equalization payments until 1947 and again from 1957 to 1965. We got our share of the program when we needed it! It is a Canadian solution so both Harper and the WRP want to end it.

    The Wild Rose Party muddies the water by saying the equalization payments were not started until years later. That in itself is true but, this does not change the fact Alberta survived on payments from Ottawa for a great many years before they named it Equalization payments .

    They also sight the Chase Manhattan Bank as being the great Canadian Savior by saving us from the evil eastern banks of the day. One does not have to wonder about their origins! They are the Canadian representatives of the US republican party to which the LDS contributes greatly.

    • Athabascan

      March 2nd, 2016

      People in the LDS are self-deluding. To say the Wildrose is responsible for that, is ass-backwards. The fact is the Wildrose is heavily influenced by its LDS members that control the party at the behest of the oil and gas industry.

      I agree with everything else you state.

      I wold add that if Alberta wants its equalization payments back, the easiest way to make up that money is to institute a provincial sales tax like other provinces do.

  3. Tom in Ontario

    March 2nd, 2016

    From the Harper MA masterpiece:

    “He (Dr. Atkins) went to considerable pains to keep on track a difficult student who frequently had other pressing priorities.”

    Like learning to tinkle the ivories and conquering the art of taping hockey sticks.

    • anonymous

      March 3rd, 2016

      “Like learning to tinkle the ivories….” In this neck of the woods, we learn to tickle the ivories. But if Steve and Eva want to tinkle the ivories in the privacy of their parliamentary office, then who am I to object?

  4. jerrymacgp

    March 2nd, 2016

    While it is of course true that not one red cent of Alberta provincial taxes go to support equalization, there is a case to be made that, as has been said, “there is only one taxpayer”, and so those federal taxes that go into equalization are funds being siphoned out of the pockets of Alberta taxpayers all the same.

    Perhaps, instead of calling for an end to the programme, though, I think it might be better for us to simply call for the flow of that pipeline to be reversed (somewhat like Energy East), and make Alberta a net recipient of equalization dollars, at least until the Saudis turn down the taps again.



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