Work on fiscal framework plebiscite to go ahead for ‘informed discourse’: Nenshi

Boxes of roughly 75,000 advance votes sit unopened in Elections Calgary's office, pictured on Oct. 13, 2017. Pat Carroll / Global News

Calgary could be going it alone in putting a plebiscite question about the city’s fiscal relationship with the province on this October’s ballot.

It’s in response to the Alberta government’s pledge to hold a referendum on removing federal equalization from the Constitution during the municipal election.

In February, city council voted to start work on a question “regarding the fairness and equity of the city’s fiscal relationship with the province,” and the wording would be created following consultation with other municipalities.

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Thursday morning, the city’s intergovernmental affairs committee heard that there hasn’t been “significant interest” from other municipalities.

“Not having support from other municipalities, we weren’t able to draw up a question in consultation with them,” Jeremy Clarke with the city’s governance and corporate strategy department said.

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Administration presented four possible questions that could be asked, and the committee agreed to move ahead with the plebiscite work using the fourth option — “Should the city advocate for a fair deal for cities?” — in principle. Only Ward 11 Coun. Jeromy Farkas opposed the motion.

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Mayor Naheed Nenshi voted in favour of continuing the work on the plebiscite in the spirit of “informed discourse.”

“We very well know that the City of Calgary does not have a fair deal with the province of Alberta, that Calgary taxpayers spend far more money to the province in Alberta than we get back in provincial government services,” Nenshi said.

“And this could be a good opportunity for voters to remind the province that, as they go on and on about equalization and fair deal, there ought to be a fair deal within the province as well.”

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Nenshi said the results of the plebiscite could be a useful tool for the next city council, of which he and at least six other councillors will not be a part of.

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“Ultimately, we have a situation where certainly the province is not that interested in the results of the plebiscite, they’re more interested in the threat of the plebiscite,” the mayor said. “And some conspiracy theorists would say (the province is) interested in changing the makeup of the voters who come to vote in the municipal election.

“And certainly if the city has their own question, that thwarts at least the second one of those.”

Ward 8 Coun. Evan Woolley was upset the provincial government sought to insert itself in the upcoming municipal election for political gain.

“I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to have the premier use what is our municipal election process where we talk about municipal issues, and using that democratic process for their ideological fight with the federal government,” Woolley said.

“I think the tit-for-tat component of this is unfortunate, but I think politically it may be a necessity,” he added.

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Laws currently on the books don’t allow Alberta municipalities to refuse the province a referendum question, but city council could ask the premier to not add a question about equalization to the ballot.

The final wording of the local question is to be sent to Elections Calgary by June 30, to give them enough time to prepare materials to educate Calgarians on the question. But Elections Calgary deputy city clerk Andrew Brouwer told the committee they could push that to as late as early August, to allow council to make a decision.

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The province must provide their question to the city by Sept. 7, in order to have it printed on the ballot.

Calgarians go to the polls on Oct. 18.

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