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A tsunami of Tory troubles? Naw, the Alberta universe is unfolding as it should…

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O. Brian Fjeldheim

Alberta media are portraying the return to the news this week of three pre-Christmas political scandals as a tsunami of trouble for the governing Tories of Premier Alison Redford.

In fact, serial news stories yesterday and the day before about a conflict-of-interest investigation, an election-financing investigation and the resumption of testimony in the so-called health care queue-jumping inquiry indicate the opposite.

Timing, as they say, is everything, and the swift disposition of all three embarrassing stories early in the new year and relatively early in the Redford Government's mandate strongly suggest that all three issues are being managed in a way that will make them disappear long before they present an electoral threat to the government.

Remember, the government controlled the timing of all three developments, and readers can take it as given that it scheduled them as it did for strategic reasons. To wit: To ensure they are long gone from the collective memory of Albertans by the time the next election swings around in 2016.

Moreover, in each case the premier's government effectively controls the mandate of the investigations, ensuring that what is being looked into is tightly limited and, it is said here, unlikely to produce revelations that do much damage to the government.

On Monday, Albertans learned that Alberta Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson has started an investigation into the so-called Tobacco-gate affair, wherein the international legal consortium hired to handle a multi-year, multi-million lawsuit against Big Tobacco turned out to include an Alberta law firm that had among its partners the premier's ex-husband and transition team leader after she won the Progressive Conservative Party leadership in 2011.

The story first broke in the fall and caused the government serious difficulty for a few days. We found out about the Ethics Commissioner's investigation because Wilkinson sent letters to the Opposition parties, all of which had demanded such a probe, confirming that his work was under way just as they wished.

Wilkinson is a long-time Tory stalwart with ties that go back to the regime of Ralph Klein. This does not mean he will not conduct a proper investigation, of course, but it is probably fair to question his zeal to turn over every rock.

Yesterday, Albertans learned that Chief Electoral Officer O. (for Olaf) Brian Fjeldheim had hired a retired judge and a couple of private dicks, hard-boiled or otherwise, to look into whether the rules were broken, or merely bent, when Edmonton hockey and drugstore billionaire Daryl Katz turned up at PC Headquarters in the final desperate hours of the 2012 election campaign with a cheque for either $300,000 or $430,000 in his pocket. (Accounts vary depending on which news source you prefer.)

Alberta law prohibits donations from any individual bigger than $30,000. But the big cheque, or so we're told, was merely a convenience -- the donations actually came from several of Katz's friends, relatives and business colleagues.

That's right, and it was just a coincidence that Katz was looking for a subsidy of a half billion dollars or so to build a new home for his Oilers hockey club at about the same moment it appeared Redford's PCs were soon to go to go down to defeat at the hands of the much-father-right Wildrose Party.

And how did we learn about that particular investigation? Why, Fjeldheim -- another long-time Tory stalwart and Chamber of Commerce president from Vegreville, in former Premier Ed Stelmach's riding -- sent a letter to the Wildrose Party.

Finally, after two weeks of testimony in December in Edmonton and a nice break for the holiday, the Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry, also headed by a retired judge, resumed its scheduled hearings in Calgary.

Despite taking a slightly more aggressive tone than we have grown used to with a nervous former Capital Health Region CEO Sheila Weatherill, an Order of Canada pin prominently displayed in her lapel, counsel for the commission nevertheless failed to winkle out any persuasive evidence of line-jumping by friends of the government.

Such luminaries as former Calgary Health Region CEO Jack Davis and Health Minister Fred Horne are also scheduled to testify soon, but don't get your hopes up for any startling revelations from them either. After all, the terms of reference of the inquiry by John Vertes have been carefully limited to avoid mention of intimidation of physicians and other health professions -- which, some have argued, was the real scandal that took place during the time now being probed.

Should it happen that all three inquiries end not with a bang but a whimper, the opposition parties will howl that justice has not been served. But it is likely that most Albertans who are not paying close attention will accept the results and not draw too big a distinction between, say, an investigation by a retired judge or a real judicial inquiry with independent powers.

Then, a little time will pass and another election will be upon us in 2016 and the universe will again unfold as it should, at least from the perspective of God, who is also thought to be a Tory of long standing.

The success of this plan, however, will hinge upon there being no more scandals lurking in the undergrowth. Who wants to bet?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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