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Former journalist Tom Olsen chosen to lead Kenney's renamed 'war room'

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Tom Olsen. Image: David J. Climenhaga

Former journalist Tom Olsen, for much of the past decade a self-employed PR man who rarely strayed far from the gravitational field of Conservative power in Alberta, was named yesterday by Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage as the successful candidate to lead the United Conservative Party's "war room."

Perhaps Olsen was the only candidate for the job. It's hard to know from Savage's news release, which subtly renamed the entity a more respectable-sounding "Canadian Energy Centre." That seems unlikely, however, since his managing director's salary will be $195,000 per annum.

Regardless, the well-coiffed former reporter's years as a loyal Conservative retainer included a stint as a spokesperson for former premier Ed Stelmach and a doomed run earlier this year for the United Conservative Party in the Calgary-Buffalo riding, where he was comfortably defeated by former NDP finance minister Joe Ceci, the blue wave of 2019 notwithstanding.

This led one wag, perhaps unfairly underestimating Ceci's popularity in central Calgary, to observe on social media yesterday that even when UCP candidates lose, they win. Indeed, Olsen's appointment does seem to be another indicator the right kind of failure is no barrier to success in Jason Kenney's Alberta.

In that vein, a low note in the new war room commandante's career, which included a sideline leading an "alt-country" band that often played Conservative party and media hoedowns, was struck when his eponymous ensemble was selected to perform at premier Jim Prentice's victory party on election night 2015.

The name of the band, appropriately enough: Tom Olsen and the Wreckage. The fun foursome's music can be appreciated here, for the moment anyway.

Notwithstanding his tendency to be found near Conservative leaders -- he appeared in the background of news shots of Alison Redford on the night in 2011 she was chosen PC leader -- he apparently didn't love them all. Political blogger Dave Cournoyer recalled in a 2010 blog how Olsen dismissed ambitious PC cabinet minister Ted Morton in a 2005 Calgary Herald article as "smug" and "arrogant." Fortunately for Olsen, Morton turned out to be the worst premier Alberta never had.

I should note that Olson and I worked together as assistant city editors at the Calgary Herald in the late 1990s. However, our career paths diverged during the journalists' strike in 1999 and 2000, when I walked the picket line, and Olsen didn't.

During his tenure as Stelmach's PR flack, Olsen was stuck with the difficult job of explaining how a photo of children frolicking on an English beach managed to find its way into a $25-million Alberta branding campaign launched by the Progressive Conservative government in 2009.

The beach at Bamburgh, Northumberland, was featured in online advertising and a video about Alberta. Northumberland Tourism was delighted.

"There's no attempt to make people think that this is Alberta," Olsen huffed to The Globe and Mail. "That picture just fit the mood and tone of what we were trying to do."

He will need to do better than that if he is to live up to Savage's promise that the war room -- pardon me, the energy centre -- will be responsible for "swift responses to misinformation spread through social and traditional media."

It's not clear what the centre will do when it must deal with accurate information that doesn't support the UCP narrative about fossil fuels in Alberta -- for example, the argument that using pipelines to salt water to increase the supply of Alberta bitumen will somehow defy the laws of economic gravity and increase the price the stuff fetches as well.

Or, for another example, the tendentious claim, articulated in Savage's news release yesterday, that "the reputation of Alberta's energy sector has been damaged by a deceitful campaign to landlock the oilsands."

In addition to the war room's "rapid response unit," Savage noted, the office will have two other units: an "energy literacy unit" that will "help the province take control of its energy story," and a research unit "in charge of centralizing and analyzing data to reinforce this story with factual evidence for investors, researchers and policy makers."

Savage passed over this important point rather lightly in her release, but the war room will be structured as a corporation, rather than a branch of government.

It's interesting to speculate on why a highly ideological market-fundamentalist government that in the normal course of events has little time for Crown corporations or other forms of public ownership would take this route. Perhaps it is to avoid conflict with the new ministry of red tape, seeing as some of the core functions of the corporation will obviously duplicate jobs already done by government departments.

Savage said the centre will be in operation before the end of the year.

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 post, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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