Equalization referendum could play role in Kenney popularity

CALGARY — Premier Jason Kenney’s popularity continues to plummet in Alberta, and the upcoming municipal election could affect it even more.

With the latest polls showing Kenney is at a nation-low 22 per cent approval rate, the referendum question on equalization is being seen as an indirect vote on his leadership.

“If this referendum fails, it’s certainly right on Jason Kenney’s shoulders,” said Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes.

Barnes, who sits as an independent after being booted from the United Conservative Party this year due to his opposition to COVID-19 protocols, is hopeful the referendum succeeds. But if it does, he added it will be despite the premier.

“His popularity in Alberta, he’s polling lower than Justin Trudeau. We’ve seen people organized to try to say let’s send a strong message against Jason Kenney by voting no,” he said. “My goodness, during the vote yes to end equalization referendum election period, he’s been invisible. So, rural Albertans are telling me they’re feeling that they especially are not being heard.”

Barnes is also looking to start a new political party aimed at funnelling rural votes away from the UCP, as he said people outside the major cities are feeling alienated from the government.

RELATED: Independent MLA wants rural votes with possible new political party

He also pushes back on opponents to the referendum, saying the current equalization formula — which was drafted while Kenney was a cabinet minister in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal government — has not benefitted Alberta families.

Barnes is not alone in believing this referendum vote could amount to a vote of non-confidence from the public if it fails.

“I think losing this referendum, I don’t know how he’s going to try and spin it as some sort of victory. But he will,” said Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt.

Bratt added Kenney has also stopped most of his grandstanding on equalization lately, apart from the times he has been asked about it by reporters at unrelated press conferences.


With the Liberals prevailing in the snap federal election last month, Bratt said Kenney would probably be hoping for a victory on this ballot. What makes the situation more difficult is how he changes course and recovers if the no votes prevail on the referendum.

“Jason Kenney has lost a lot of battles against Ottawa, but he is still throwing punches,” he said. “If he says, ‘well we lost the referendum but we’re still going to try to negotiate for a fairer deal for Alberta’, it shows they didn’t need the referendum in the first place. Which is what a lot of constitutional critics have pointed out, that calling for a constitutional amendment — you don’t need a referendum to do that.”

Bratt said this would ultimately end up looking like a loss for Kenney no matter what, and it also would not succeed in putting equalization at the top of the national agenda like supporters are hoping.

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