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We need an honest inquiry into foreign political funding -- Kenney's 'witch hunt' inquiry isn't it

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, flanked by Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer and Energy Minister Sonya Savage, at yesterday’s news conference in Calgary (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

In truth, Canada needs a thorough and honest inquiry into foreign political funding, online manipulation and influence.

Unfortunately, the $2.5-million probe into "foreign-funded defamation" of Alberta's fossil fuel industry announced by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's government yesterday at a news conference in Calgary isn't it.

How could it be? It's been established to buttress a debunked conspiracy theory that proved useful to the United Conservative Party's election campaign and may yet have some utility in the efforts of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party of Canada to win the federal election this fall.

But as was said here when this "inquiry" was still an irresponsible election promise dreamed up by the UCP's Rebel Media-inspired campaign team, this can be an honest inquiry, or it can be what the government has promised it will be, but it can't be both.

If you're looking for a first indicator of which way it's going to roll, consider the fact it's not led by an impartial and disinterested judge, as any serious inquiry into any serious issue would be.

I don't know if Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, who with Energy Minister Sonya Savage seems to be stuck with handling this likely-to-be-embarrassing file, actually talked to any judges about leading this effort, but if he did he must have been laughed out of chambers.

Instead, the inquiry into what Kenney called "a well-funded political propaganda campaign to defame our energy industry and to land-lock our resources" to the advantage of U.S. energy companies by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation and other U.S. charitable entities will be led by the chair of Calgary Economic Development (CED).

Look, I'm sure Steve Allan is a fine fellow and the "leading forensic and restructuring accountant" described in the government's news release, but giving responsibility to the leader of a city office set up to sell corporate investors on the benefits of opening branch offices in Cowtown is not a sound strategy for a serious inquiry. Giving the holder of such an office the title of commissioner and subpoena power under the province's Public Inquiries Act is ludicrous.

As CED describes itself on its website, "Calgary Economic Development is a conduit, connector, catalyst and storyteller." It's fair to say, at least, that Allan obviously has the right background for the job Kenney obviously has in mind for him.

But only a judge could be the "effective and impartial commissioner," Schweitzer described. And it's doubtful any judge would take on an inquiry with the terms of reference of this one.

It's also not a good sign that Kenney repeatedly pointed to commentaries by a Vancouver blogger beloved of the energy industry to back up his dubious claim that $75 million has been expended on this conspiracy.

NDP economic development critic Deron Bilous described the inquiry as a "glorified Google search," but Vancouver-based environmentalist Tzeporah Berman came closer to the mark when she tweeted that "what is disturbing about this Alberta inquiry is government using power of the state to harass citizens who disagree with their agenda to expand the oil and gas industry despite the growing threat of climate change. This inquiry is about civil liberties."

Even Stephen Harper committed to phasing out fossil fuels in this century, Berman noted in another tweet. "Attacking free speech will not turn back the clock."

Energy journalist Markham Hislop called the inquiry the "Un-Alberta Activities Committee" and described its mandate as conducting a "witch hunt."

Indeed, Premier Kenney described the tactics of this supposed "disinformation and defamation" campaign as "litigation, public protests and political lobbying," all activities that are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in case the UCP missed it.

So if Kenney expects to use the findings of this inquiry as the basis of a legal effort to harass and sue critics of the fossil fuel industry, the outcome in the courts is likely to be both disappointing and expensive for Alberta taxpayers, even if they sincerely believe Alberta's fossil fuel industry has been badly done by.

The premier half-heartedly conceded this point yesterday, responding to a reporter's question with the admission "we can't project in outside jurisdictions." D'ya think? Anyone basing a lawsuit on the findings of this group will be laughed out of court, and not just an American court either.

Anyway, it'll be a relief to Alberta taxpayers and voters to learn the causes of the energy industry's troubles are not, as the Houston Chronicle explained on Tuesday, caused by rising production, weakening demand and skeptical investors.

The inquiry is supposed to report on July 2, 2020. That's the Thursday after a mid-week Canada Day holiday, an excellent day to bury any disappointment if the findings turn out to be somewhat underwhelming.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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