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Rebranded 'war room' aims for 'measured tone,' doesn't quite succeed

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Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

All the Alberta government's rebranded energy war room is trying to do, pleaded managing director Tom Olsen in his much anticipated riposte to an acerbic column last week in the Medicine Hat News, is to bring a little civility to the debate about whether or not foreign-funded enviro-propagandists are an actual thing.

The war room decided to "reach out" on Sunday as soon as someone there read reporter Jeremy Appel's sharply worded column, which concluded that the best thing you can say about the so-called Canadian Energy Centre Ltd. is that it's "an expensive joke."

Olsen, a former Calgary Herald assistant city editor, tried for a tone more of sadness than of anger when taking issue with Appel's tart conclusions. What he came up with, though, was more akin to a boring press release, as Hat News staffers were soon gleefully tweeting.

In his column, published on December 14, Appel also warned of the war room that, "at worst, it's a grave threat to our right to dissent."

No, no, Olsen protested, "our approach is to be informative, positive and educational about the Canadian energy industry."

"We invite everyone to join us in public discourse," he insisted, describing Canadian Energy Centre Ltd.'s mission as "the sharing of knowledge, facts and ideas that will help us reach our potential with energy that is produced in the most responsible and sustainable manner possible."

All the war room wants to do is "bring a more measured tone to a conversation we think is vitally important," he insisted.

Readers, I'm sure you're all just as relieved as I am by Olsen's assurances.

The trouble with this line of argument, though, is that it's a little hard to sustain in light of the stream of belligerent statements made about the war room and its mission by Premier Jason Kenney and other senior leaders of his government. The premier, after all, is the boss of the unsuccessful UCP candidate at the top of the war room org chart, whether or not the Crown-owned corporation of which Olsen is titular head has been legally structured as a private company to dodge Freedom of Information requests.

Making that task even harder is the need to defend the conspiracy theory on which the entire project is based. Olsen tried, although not particularly successfully. "Creation of the CEC is a direct response to the domestic and foreign-funded campaigns against Canada’s oil and gas industry that have divided Canadians and devastated the Alberta economy," he wrote.

Well, that's tendentious, but to give Olsen his due, at least it's not rude. He did sort of manage to maintain a civil tone while pretending the government's favourite (and intentionally divisive) conspiracy theory is fact. Anyway, the Kenney government has different operatives for the offensive stuff, like the premier's "executive director of issues management" -- c'mon down, Matt Wolf!

And you can't blame Olsen for trying -- after all he's paid almost $200,000 a year to do so, and I imagine he understands that he'd better make a success of it or the premier may throw him to the Wolf.

Alas for the war room, as Appel put it in his column, its "entire premise is based on the notion that anyone who opposes oilsands expansion is a liar with ulterior motives."

In response to the corporate structure dodge, Olsen gamely trotted out the government's unpersuasive standard talking point -- that it's being done only to keep those foreign-funded environmental plotters from knowing the war room's secret strategic plans.

This might be more credible if Kenney and his minions hadn't spent months telegraphing what the war room was going to do. It doesn't exactly require Mata Hari to puzzle that stuff out!

As an aside, it's interesting that Olsen included a line in his effort to claim one of the impacts of the purported conspiracy to "landlock" Alberta's fossil fuels is to lower the value of shares held by "many of the country's biggest pension plans and investment funds." Hmm… Well, the government of Alberta certainly seems to have that topic on its mind these days, doesn't it?

Olsen's approach doesn't seem likely to be very successful. The government's supporters want blood. Its opponents are predisposed to disbelieve anything the War Room has to say. And it's doubtful the undecided -- and there are many of them -- are going to bother to read anything as dull as yesterday's contribution to the Medicine Hat News.

Oh, and that inquiry? It poses a threat to free expression rights too

Meanwhile, over at the University of Calgary's faculty of law, two contributors to its Ablawg.ca legal issues blog have taken a look at the United Conservative Party's public inquiry into Anti-Alberta energy campaigns, a phrase that begs for multiple sets of scare quotes, from the perspective of its potential impact on the right to free expression.

The news is not any better than that from Ablawg's earlier forays into other legal problems posed by the inquiry -- with the rule of law and procedural fairness.

The conclusion of Jennifer Koshan, a U of C law professor, and Linda McKay-Panos, executive director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, is that as currently structured "there are strong arguments that the Alberta Inquiry unjustifiably violates the freedom of expression of the Canadian organizations it is aimed at as well as those associated with such organizations, including their members and supporters."

"The Inquiry's harmful effects on expression have already begun to occur," they noted. "Combined with the adverse impact the Inquiry is likely to have on women and Indigenous human rights defenders and environmental activists, the Inquiry's harmful effects arguably outweigh any beneficial impact."

If it is to avoid embarrassing defeats in the courts, the government is going to have mute the findings of the inquiry to the point they turn out to be as unsatisfactory to the UCP base as Olsen's lame press release is bound to be.

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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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