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Edmonton and Ottawa awake to Jason Kenney's diplomatic funny business

Alberta Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney and two of his MLAs are running around India again today acting as if they are representatives of the governments of both Canada and Alberta.

Officials of the provincial government in Edmonton and the federal government in Ottawa appear to have been so nonplussed by the United Conservative Party leader's overseas shenanigans that it took them a few days to react.

Now that the nature of Kenney's activities abroad are starting to sink in -- not to mention the sneaky and arrogant way he informed the Alberta government about the details of his plans after he had departed -- the official reaction is taking on a sharper tone.

It would not be surprising if it gets harsher still as the overseas dog and pony show ginned up by Kenney, UCP Energy Critic Prasad Panda and Trade Critic Devin Dreeshen continues, at least if there are more tweets from Indian officials who have either been led to believe Kenney is a minister of the Crown or are co-operating with the charade.

"Kenney's never shared his trade policy with Albertans," Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous told reporters at the legislature yesterday afternoon as the antics of the three UCP amigos began to appear on social media and in Indian publications. "Is that arrogant, or is that dishonest?"

"We've already seen he's letting Indian government officials believe he's a minister representing the Alberta government. Is that arrogant, and dishonest?"

"And he's presenting himself to the Indian government as the next premier of Alberta. Without giving voters the chance to decide. Is that not arrogant and dishonest?"

"Considering the amount of trade that we do with India," Bilous went on, "he has the potential to cause a lot of confusion."

As a consequence, the minister added, "we've directed our Alberta trade office to do damage control, correcting the record wherever we can. So they will be doing follow-up conversations with all of the officials that Mr. Kenney meets."

Bilous also referenced Kenney's statements about international relations -- a responsibility of the federal government the opposition leader is no longer a part of, and which is now led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals.

"Mr. Kenney's making statements about international relationships with Iran, and he's making statements about Canadian political leaders," Bilous said. "Now, he might miss his old job in Ottawa, or maybe he's auditioning for a new job in Ottawa, but whatever he's up to, he's putting his own interests first, and not the interest of Alberta."

Such activities by the leader of a sub-national opposition party are unprecedented, Bilous noted. "What's a concern is if he is speaking on behalf of the government of Alberta, or if there is confusion around his role or his position. For Mr. Kenney to be commenting on Canada's position on international relations … that's outside of his jurisdiction to speak on behalf of the Government of Canada."

Having bigger fish to fry in Washington just now, neither Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland nor Global Affairs Canada have yet responded directly to Kenney's activities, although one expects they may soon have to. As Bilous pointed out to the media, no one really knows what Kenney is saying or what, if anything, he told federal officials about his trip.

Alberta officials say Kenney contacted the government on Wednesday last week to inform it of the upcoming trip. He had a conversation that day with Minister Bilous in which he promised to send an itinerary immediately that would show whom he would be meeting, and when.

The itinerary, however, didn't show up until late Friday, after the three UCPers had already left the country. No one in either Canadian government knows who in India issued the invitation to the three, or if they invited themselves.

Kenney did tell Bilous in their phone conversation that it was important for him and his MLAs to visit India because he'll be forming a government next spring -- something that could happen, but illustrating a degree of arrogance that goes somewhat beyond even traditional Alberta Conservative levels of entitlement!

Regardless, with the itinerary finally in hand, the Alberta government sent copies to Global Affairs Canada and Minister Freeland's office. An official in Edmonton said there is no indication either was aware of Kenney's specific plans before that.

"At the moment, his office is as the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, and he doesn't speak on behalf of the Government of Alberta and he doesn't speak on behalf of the Government of Canada," Bilous said.

"We're not about to let this visit of Mr. Kenney's potentially damage the Government of Alberta's … relationship with India," the minister added. "That's why our Alberta office will be following up with every single person that Mr. Kenney meets with in order to clarify our position, our priorities, and also to clarify Mr. Kenney's authority with which he is attempting to speak."

Earlier yesterday, NDP Transportation Minister and former leader Brian Mason suggested to reporters the UCP trio is breaking the rules of the legislature by using party funds to pay for a trip in which they are conducting business as elected officials. He said he is considering filing a complaint with the Ethics Commissioner about Kenney's activities.

"He's either there on an approved trip as the leader of the Official Opposition, in which case he's not entitled … to take outside money, to be funded by partisan donations, or he's going there as a private individual and not doing government business," Mason was quoted as saying in a CBC report. "He can't have it both ways."

Recalling his own visit with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin a decade ago, Mason described how he sought the permission of the Speaker to make the visit to study the state's royalty regime, and how only as a result of that approval was he permitted to represent himself as an Alberta MLA while in Alaska.

The CBC story also noted how despite his frequent criticism of NDP tax policies, Kenney has been boasting to Indian media about the province's low tax rates. "I think he should add on a line that says, 'Thank you, Premier Notley and the government of Alberta in ensuring that Alberta continues to be the most competitive jurisdiction in Canada and one of the most competitive in the world'," Bilous observed in yesterday afternoon's scrum.

"Mr. Kenney is saying one thing to Albertans and another to an international audience," Bilous noted.

Albertans should now stand by for all of Postmedia's anti-NDP Alberta political columnists -- which is all four of them -- to pen stories in the next 24 hours defending Kenney's activities in India.

And Canadians can expect this entire production to be repeated next month when federal Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer makes his own unauthorized nine-day trip to India.

Scheer has not yet released an itinerary, but what do you want to bet many of the officials he meets will be the same ones met by Kenney, associated with the far-right Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which translates as Indian People's Party.

It is only a coincidence, presumably, that the BJP is a member of the Munich-based International Democrat Union headed by Stephen Harper, who as Conservative prime minister included both Kenney and Scheer among his acolytes.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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