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Judge hopes to rule on Ecojustice challenge to Alberta inquiry by May 31

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Inquiry Commissioner Steve Allan. Image credit: Government of Alberta

We're all just going to have to wait to find out how the legal effort by Ecojustice Canada Society to shut down Alberta's so-called "Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns" turns out.

After hearing arguments for two days last week from lawyers for Ecojustice, the province, inquiry commissioner Steve Allan, and a group of about 300 pro-industry organizations and individuals, Madam Justice Karen Horner reserved judgment.

She said she hoped to make a decision before May 31, the government's latest deadline for the inquiry to submit its report.

In case you were thinking Allan might try to beat her ruling by hurrying to publish his findings, it's probably a safe bet Justice Horner will get there well before he manages to report anything. The Calgary accountant has already missed two deadlines and it'll probably be a stretch for him to meet the third one.

Ecojustice's arguments are well known: that the inquiry has been biased from the get-go, is an improper use of the province's Public Inquiries Act, and is outside the province's jurisdiction.

Whether or not Ecojustice is winning in court is impossible to say -- you just never can tell with a judicial proceeding. But the group is certainly well ahead in the Canadian court of public opinion, in which Allan's lamentable efforts look more ridiculous by the week.

In addition to all those missed deadlines and the fact the "public" inquiry has been conducted entirely in secret, Allan now has to contend with public reaction to the three "research papers" he commissioned for the inquiry.

Two were rife with claims sinister Marxists are influencing the environmental movement and preposterous theorizing about a huge global conspiracy to overthrow capitalism and replace it with subsistence farming or something. The third was produced by a Washington-based lobby for a group of U.S. fracking corporations. And for this we paid nearly $100,000!

In other words, most Canadians have already concluded the inquiry is a bad joke. No matter what Allan comes up with, that perception is not going to be easy to change.

As for the arguments last week, the province's lawyer, predictably, insisted the inquiry is in the public interest and that no particular group is being targeted.

Allan's lawyer told the court the commissioner is a public-spirited guy, engaged in many political and community causes, who's just trying to "improve living conditions for Calgarians and Calgary businesses."

And according to the lawyer for the 300 interested parties, they're deeply affected by the health of Alberta's oil and gas industry and they just want to hear what the inquiry has to say.

Full disclosure: I didn't tune in to the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench virtual hearing online. I'm just trusting the rather skimpy media reports for these summaries.

It probably doesn't help either that just about the only decent royalty-free photo of Allen shows him wearing a cowboy hat and standing in front of a circus Ferris wheel.

In terms of the speed with which Allan can wrap up this slow-motion train wreck, Ecojustice's suit and all the attention it's gotten mean there's no way he can get away without dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's in his report to ensure anyone about whom he makes a negative finding has a chance to review and rebut all the evidence.

That will take time.

Cut corners to hurry out the report and, guaranteed, the inquiry and Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party government are going to be back in court facing judicial review of the whole dubious exercise.

If no one is criticized, well, Premier Kenney just isn't going to look like a genius for vowing during the election campaign to get to the bottom of the supposed conspiracy by foreign environmental charities to "landlock" the Canadian energy industry, setting the whole thing in motion, and then coming up with bupkes!

It sure sounds as if no one in the UCP strategic brain trust bothered to read the Public Inquiries Act to see how much work it was to run a proper public inquiry before they set the wheels of this plan in motion.

Rest assured, no one is urging a judicial outcome by saying this, but Justice Horner would probably be doing the government an undeserved favour if she put a stop to the inquiry before Allan could come up with a report!

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.

Image credit: Government of Alberta

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