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Jason Kenney's office scripted op-ed and speaking notes for head of 'expert panel' on Alberta's finances

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Premier Jason Kenney with his "blue ribbon" panel in May 2019. From left to right: retired business professor and former politician Mike Percy, banker Dave Mowat, Finance Minister Travis Toews, chair Janice MacKinnon, Premier Jason Kenney, former B.C. deputy minister Kim Henderson, senior Alberta civil servant Jay Ramotar, and economist and Fraser Institute associate Bev Dahlby. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

It turns out Janice MacKinnon's six-member "expert panel" was using a script cooked up in Premier Jason Kenney's office at least part of the time it was supposedly taking its "deep dive" into Alberta's books last year.

Alert readers will recall that when freshly elected United Conservative Party Premier Jason Kenney announced the creation of the so-called "blue ribbon panel" on Alberta's finances back on May 7, 2019, he gave it the mandate of getting the province's books back into the black in less than three years without raising existing taxes or introducing new ones.

As was observed in this space at the time, Kenney's promises on the campaign trail notwithstanding, there was only one way to do that, and it wasn't going to be pretty. Albertans are starting to understand that reality now.

Kenney chose MacKinnon, a University of Saskatchewan history professor and former Saskatchewan NDP finance minister whose political claim to fame was closing 52 rural hospitals in that province in the early 1990s, to head the handpicked panel of representatives from business, government and the academy.

Now, MacKinnon was obviously the kind of New Democrat the UCP liked, and the ideological reliability of the panel was never in much doubt, regardless of the premier's claims about its independence.

Even so, it was a surprise to learn yesterday, thanks to the freedom of information filings of an intrepid researcher for the Alberta Federation of Labour, that UCP political staffers wrote speaking notes and a newspaper opinion piece for MacKinnon.

Never mind the op-ed's byline and chatty first person tone. "When I was finance minister in Saskatchewan in the 1990s, I faced the prospect of the province going into bankruptcy …" The government emails uncovered by Tony Clark's FOIP filings show that the May 9 op-ed run in Postmedia's newspapers was written entirely by Kenney government functionaries.

As AFL president Gil McGowan observed in a news release, "Jason Kenney used the government's resources to get the report he wanted."

A department official, name apparently redacted, emailed MacKinnon: "Premier's office would also like an op-ed to go out from you as chair. Can you take a look at the following draft, which is based on your speaking notes?"

MacKinnon responded cheerfully: "The op-ed is great. Well done I have no changes."

The MacKinnon panel produced pretty much exactly what Kenney wanted in the panel's report, the deep cuts and recommendations of privatization of public services that are now unfolding as policy -- apparently as a shock to many of the voters who cast their ballots for the UCP.

Chances were high MacKinnon would recommend what the premier wanted because she'd already advised much the same thing in another op-ed -- co-authored with University of Calgary economist Jack Mintz, beloved by the Kenney government for his market fundamentalist views, in 2017.

Still, given this revelation, it's certainly fair for Albertans to wonder if there was anything independent at all about the panel's investigations, which were conducted at double time in less than four months, or if the entire script was stage-managed from the premier's office.

That kind of manipulation should matter, although in this cynical era there's plenty of evidence it isn't likely to make conservatives blush.

Environment Ministry to staffers: Do as you're told and no backchat

We're informed that about 300 officials from the Alberta environment and parks ministry were summoned to the confusingly-named but provincially-owned Federal Building in Edmonton Tuesday to receive new marching orders, presumably straight from the office of Environment Minister Jason Nixon.

To wit, differing views about the UCP government's land management and resource exploitation philosophy are no longer welcome, and ministry staff, regardless of qualifications, are expected to implement decisions of the government with no backchat.

If anything was written down, it doesn't seem to have been handed out to the assembled civil servants, many of whom are said not to have been very happy.

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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