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Wikileaks oopsie suggests secret Tory scheme to soak Alberta taxpayers to enrich private utilities

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Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason

A good rule in public relations is never to let the story you tell one group stray too far from the story you tell another.

A government, say, might be tempted to frame its plans one way to the saps who vote for it and pay all the bills, but quite another way to another government with which it is trying to cook up a deal. However, the stories nevertheless need to have a sort of internal consistency.

Failure to achieve this -- especially in this digital and interconnected age -- will almost certainly result in discovery and subsequent embarrassment.

This is another way of saying that in PR, as in a life of crime, one's lies are best when they don't stray too far from the truth. If nothing else, this makes them easier to remember when the cops -- or the media -- start to ask you difficult questions!

Alas, the Progressive Conservative government of Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach seems to forgotten this prudent advice when it told voters that they need to pony up $13 billion to bring Alberta's electricity infrastructure up to snuff to serve them better in our thoroughly modern future, but told the our mighty neighbour to the south that someday there will be plenty of excess capacity from the plants that power the tar sand mines to ship electricity south to happy U.S. consumers.

But then, in the government's defence, when you whisper the truth in the ear of a U.S. envoy while implying little white lies to the taxpaying public, who would have imagined that your very private conversation would end up in internal U.S. government diplomatic cables broadcast to the world via Wikileaks?

And to have the information emerge one fine day the better part of a decade later, when you're trying to reinvent your party as one that deserves to get to govern just a little while longer, is enough to make any Tory politician groan at the injustice of it all.

Nevertheless, this is what happened in Alberta if you believe NDP Leader Brian Mason, who said yesterday in a news release that "the PCs swore to Albertans that massive power line projects -- set to cost Albertan households hundreds of dollars per year -- had nothing to do with exporting power." Yet a U.S. diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks, Mason said, "shows the Tories have been misleading Albertans about their intentions -- telling the public one thing and then promoting exports to U.S. diplomats…"

Clearly, Mason concluded, "electricity de-regulation serves power companies first, and Albertans last." Stelmach's Conservatives, he said, "need to come clean with Albertans about how much they will be asked to pay just so power companies can profit."

Is Mason's assertion actually supported by the Wikileaked cable? Well, the link to who will pay the cost of building the lines not conclusive, but as a matter of connecting some dots, the inference can certainly be drawn from the text of the cable. No doubt the Alberta government will come up with an alternative explanation as soon as it thinks of one -- which, presumably, was not yesterday, as according to the CBC, "Energy Minister Ron Liepert was not available for comment."

Other local media appear not to have covered the story at all, and no one seems to have thought to ask the alleged originator of these comments to explain what, exactly, he was actually trying to communicate to U.S. officials when he made the pitch.

The originator in question would be then-Energy Minister Murray Smith, who was later Alberta's oil sands "envoy" to Washington. It would be interesting to know if the same sort of thing was promised by Smith when he was in the latter role, or by his successor in that position.

The successor, after all, would be Gary Mar, former Ralph Klein era minister of pretty well everything and now the man who now stands at the head of the line to become premier of Alberta when Stelmach finally returns to his farm.

Another intriguing question for some enterprising reporter to ask would be how the Alberta government proposed to generate all this electricity that might eventually be shipped to the United States over electrical lines that may or may not be built, and which may or may not be paid for through their bills by hard-pressed Alberta electricity consumers. My bet: what they had in mind was nuclear generation.

Regardless of the obviously unasked questions, and the media's evident lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Mason’s inferences, this story is going to linger and provide some discomfort under the saddles of all the Conservative Party's leadership contenders.

This is because the one issue above all others that really upsets Albertans about their provincial government is out-of-control utility rates.

Voters may not understand the details of the "deregulation" implemented when Klein was premier and Smith was energy minister, or why it led to much higher prices, but they sure as heck understand the impact on their family budgets. And their overwhelming conclusion is that it was pure government incompetence that got us to where we are now.

So even if the reaction yesterday to Mason's allegations seemed muted, all Opposition parties will likely try to keep chipping away at this issue, which polling consistently shows is this government's Achilles Heel.

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

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