File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, centre, along with his Deputy Minister Paul Rochon, left, and Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada Carolyn Wilkins, right, as they prepare to meet with provincial and territorial finance ministers in Ottawa.

Equalization debate re-emerges ahead of finance ministers’ meeting in Ottawa

OTTAWA — Canada’s long-simmering internal debate over how the federal government divvies up equalization payments among the provinces is expected to flare up yet again this week when the country’s finance ministers get together for their twice-yearly gathering.

On the eve of Tuesday’s meeting in Ottawa, finance ministers from some so-called “have” provinces — those that don’t receive equalization payments, which are financed through federal tax revenue — say they very much intend to raise the issue, even though it’s not on the official agenda.

Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and Alberta are all promising to press Finance Minister Bill Morneau and their other provincial counterparts for changes.

They could, however, be told that they’ll have to wait until 2024.

The federal government has been under fire in recent days for renewing the existing equalization formula for another five years despite strong objections from some provinces. The extension kicks in next year.

Equalization, based on a highly complex calculation, is designed to help poorer provincial governments provide public services that are reasonably comparable to those in other provinces.

The formula behind the transfers, which totalled nearly $19 billion this year, remains a divisive issue depending on whether a province receives money or nothing at all.

Newfoundland Finance Minister Tom Osborne said in an interview Monday that he had been urging Morneau to consider changes to a formula he argued has put the struggling economy of his province — and others — at a deep disadvantage.

For the 2018-19 fiscal year, the federal government transferred a total of $18.96 billion to six provinces — Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Prince Edward Island. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland didn’t get anything in 2018-19 — and haven’t for years.

Quebec easily received the biggest share with a transfer this year of more than $11.7 billion, which is more than 60 per cent of the overall equalization envelope. Manitoba’s share was the second largest this year at just under $2.04 billion.

Osborne told The Canadian Press that equalization appears to be one of the only areas where the federation’s partners refuse to budge.

He believes provinces would come to Newfoundland’s aid on other challenges — but not this one.

“On almost any other issue that’s put on the table, we work as nation,” he said. “But when you’re talking about equalization, you have… 10 provinces who each want to protect their own turf.”

Osborne’s province has been hit hard in recent years by the commodity slump. He’s been calling for the formula to reflect both revenue and expenditures, since his sparsely populated province faces far higher costs when delivering services.

“I would challenge anybody in this country to say that, certainly over the last two years, that this province was a ‘have province,’” Osborne said.

“The spirit and the intent of the constitutional obligation for equalization, I don’t believe, is being lived up to.”

Saskatchewan Finance Minister Donna Harpauer said Monday that she’ll once again call on Morneau and her counterparts to make changes to the formula, even though the federal legislation containing the extension has already received royal assent.

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