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Resolving 'Tobaccogate' -- Caesar's wife must be above suspicion … but not necessarily in Alberta

The astonishing thing about yesterday's ruling by Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner exonerating Alison Redford in the "Tobaccogate" affair is not that Neil Wilkinson concluded no wrong was done when the premier helped make a decision to award her Ex's law firm $10 billion worth of business.

Heck, for all I or any other Albertan knows maybe there really are only two or three law firms actually capable of doing the work, and maybe Wilkinson was right when he concluded choosing the International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers consortium to carry out the province’s plan to sue Big Tobacco was in the public interest.

No, the astonishing part is that it never seems to have occurred to either Redford herself or the Great Minds of her Brain Trust that having the premier play any role in the choice, when she and Robert Hawkes still consider themselves friends, might not pass the sniff test.

The other mildly surprising part is that Wilkinson never actually got to look at the one document that might have answered everyone's questions about Redford's actual role in the selection once and for all -- a briefing note with the prosaic title AR3999. But the government vowed to fight the commissioner on the grounds of privilege, and Wilkinson dropped the matter without much of a struggle.

Instead, the insiders agreed to a weird little Kabuki drama in which a lawyer hired by the government read the note and answered Wilkinson's questions about it.

The commissioner thereupon concluded: "There is absolutely no evidence, nor even a suggestion, that the decision to engage ITRL on the tobacco litigation furthered, or might further, the private interest of Premier Redford, her spouse, or that of her minor child."

Got that? Nothing to see here, folks. Please move along.

Well, OK. But I imagine that if any of the rest of us had a part in passing on $10 billion in business -- or even a piddling $10 million -- to a friend, even one we hadn't ever been married to, it might raise a few eyebrows. Not if you're the premier of Alberta, though.

As the Edmonton Journal pointed out in its coverage yesterday, Redford insists she had nothing to do with the decision, which was officially made after she'd left the justice portfolio behind. Yet, as the Journal also noted, a year earlier she signed a memorandum to her deputy minister stating "…the best choice for Alberta will be the International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers."

Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid gently suggested Redford has learned a painful lesson from this affair. But don't count on it.

Indeed, it is said here this story says pretty well everything you need to know about how Alberta operates after 42 years of PC government.

+ + +

Bill 45, An Act Expanding Thought Crime in Alberta, sails through Third Reading

There was never any question that Bill 45, An Act Expanding Thought Crime in Alberta or something like along those lines, would be passed last night by the spineless Progressive Conservative caucus.

Bill 46, An Act to Bully the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, also passed early this morning.

Still, it’s mildly surprising that an act that actually creates a new form of thought crime couldn't even muster a single dissenter among the PC ranks when it sailed through Third Reading in the Alberta Legislature.

If Bill 45 is proclaimed into law by the Lieutenant Governor, the act will proceed to the courts where, after tens of thousands, possibly millions, of Alberta taxpayers' dollars are spent on lawyers to defend it, its most egregious provisions will be struck down.

Alberta Lieutenant Governor Don Ethell could save Albertans a lot of grief and money simply by refusing to sign the bill, which is after all unconstitutional.

There is in fact an Alberta precedent in the person of John C. Bowen, Alberta's longest serving vice-regal personage, who refused to sign several bills including the delightfully named Accurate News and Information Act passed by Premier William Aberhart's Social Credit government in 1937.

Alas, that seems unlikely, so we will doubtless have to await the ruling of the courts, which thankfully remain independent and impartial, even here in Alberta.

Unexplored in the thousands of words written about this fiasco is the political strategy of Premier Redford's brain trust when they cooked up this scheme.

Presumably, they assumed the entire Wildrose caucus would support them and, come election time, they could tell nervous voters, "See, they're beasts just like us, only worse," and stitch their battered coalition back together one more time.

Unfortunately for Premier Redford and unlike her jellyfish caucus, it turns out that the Wildrosers, though not necessarily big fans of public sector unions, have principles, and one of them includes support for free expression.

Moreover, the Opposition party doubtless has plans of its own for the public service that can't be achieved if they're at war with the public employees' unions.

So, in the event, all the Opposition members in the House voted against the bill, including the Wildrosers. Unfortunately for her, this will give Redford one less thing to talk about in 2016.

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

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