Balancing out payments

Back in the days when Ontario and Quebec owned Canada, the other provinces, the Western provinces — and Alberta in particular — were regarded as colonials at the federal table. We had a voice, but no say, on most federal matters.

Back in the days when Ontario and Quebec owned Canada, the other provinces, the Western provinces — and Alberta in particular — were regarded as colonials at the federal table. We had a voice, but no say, on most federal matters.

We existed to provide cheap grain and beef for Central Canada, and we paid the freight to ship it to them. Then we could pay the freight on the finished products we in the colonies bought from the east. And this was the lawful, normal and good state of Confederation.

That condescending attitude led to a Western separatist movement that never gained much traction. But eventually the Reform Party was born under the banner of “the West wants in,” and they eventually became part of the federal Conservative Party that governs today.

Now that the West is in, now that we are an equal partner, now that energy and resources propel the Canadian economy (rather than Ontario’s Auto Pact), Central Canada is unhappy with its diminished status.

The current meeting of provincial premiers to discuss the federal plan for health-care tax transfers is an example we in Alberta should not excuse anymore.

Now that federal health funding is attached to population, and not some arcane equalization formula, Alberta for the first time gets an equal share of federal transfers that will be given to the other provinces.

Somehow, that is being interpreted in all provinces except Alberta and Saskatchewan as unfair.

How so?

The Globe and Mail published a chart on Wednesday that bordered on fraud. They printed a bar graph depicting the changes in funding each province would get under the new formula for health care, clearly intended to lead viewers to conclude that Alberta was robbing the rest of Canada.

Alberta stands to gain $1.02 billion more per year in federal dollars, while most of the other provinces are breaking even or losing money. Suffering Ontario will get $365 million less a year, B.C., around $225 million less and Quebec about $200 less. A dramatic chart indeed. A bit too dramatic.

These look like big numbers, but in each province it’s only a portion of the federal funding they have been getting until now, and a much smaller portion of their total health budgets. Make it the cost of laying off one health region CEO per province.

But Christy Clark made it sound like B.C., overrun as it is with seniors, will have old people stacked like cordwood in the emergency wards. Never mind that care for seniors is estimated to cost about one per cent of most provinces’ health-care budgets.

Let’s look at this from another perspective: Alberta has been penalized more than $1 billion a year for decades in health-care transfers. In per capita terms, Alberta’s penalty was 10 times the loss that Ontario is looking at now — and we took it and shut up. Eastern commentators have mockingly suggested the poor provinces will now have to spend nearly all their federal equalization payments on health care. As a citizen who has never received any equalization funding, one has to ask: what is the equalization allowance for if not to equalize services — like health care — across the country?

So the “normal” situation has been that Alberta pays deeply into the equalization pool for the other provinces, and has been penalized over $1 billion a year in health-care funding. But now that the health funding situation has been corrected, the other provinces are outraged.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is not the kind of person who changes his mind easily. Call him stubborn, if you like.

He should remain stubborn on this one.

And Albertans should not forget what happened in other provinces the minute we got a fair deal from Ottawa.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.