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Shredding the public interest! Albertans will never know what Tory secrets were purged by the PCs last May

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Nobody knows if any dirty Tory secrets were destroyed when 344 boxes of documents from the Alberta government's Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Department were "improperly" shredded on May 6, 2015, the day after the historic provincial election that gave Rachel Notley's New Democratic Party a majority in the Legislature.

Nobody knows if elected officials of the 44-year-old Progressive Conservative government that remained in charge in the hours after the election gave the orders to shred thousands of working papers, meeting notes, letters, files and action requests relating to litigation, committee work, legislation, cabinet decisions, outside organizations, other governments, and Aboriginal communities, or if conscientious civil servants merely took it upon themselves to clean up the documents.

The trouble is -- thanks to the effectiveness of the shredding job -- none of us will ever know.

It could have just been an overenthusiastic cleanup after decades of Progressive Conservative rule by public officials clearing the decks for the new government. It could have been an attempt to hide years of skullduggery by well-connected officials and politicians -- in a word, Shreddergate.

Like I say, we can wonder, we can speculate, but we'll never know for sure. That ship has sailed. And I, for one, am just waiting for some former PC minister or MLA to tell us to "get over it."

We do know -- thanks to the investigation by Alberta's Information and Privacy and Public Interest commissioners that was officially concluded yesterday -- that on May 8 and 13, Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton received reports from public employees deeply concerned that records were being destroyed that should have been preserved, and on May 12 Public Interest Commissioner Peter Hourihan received a similar tip from an anonymous caller.

We do know that on May 13, then-premier-elect, now Premier Notley ordered that all shredding be halted.

And we do know that Clayton and Hourihan have now concluded that the purge was done improperly and without proper supervision but that there is "no evidence" someone in the outgoing PC government ordered the shredding.

Unfortunately, for all we know, to stick with the sort of agricultural metaphor popular in Alberta nowadays, by the time the barn door was closed, the horses were long gone. Alberta citizens are entitled to wonder what documents were shredded, and why. The problem is, like I said, now we'll never know.

So here's some informed speculation on what may have happened, and why. It's only speculation, of course. This blogger's allegations have not, as they say, been proved in a court of law … and never can be.

Some senior civil servants in the forestry, energy and environment fields -- operating under different department names at different times -- didn't really need instructions from PC ministers to shred iffy documents.

They had so closely identified themselves with the government for so many years that they knew exactly what the PCs wanted without having to ask. Moreover, some of them may have been implicated in practices of the PC government of which voters would have strongly disapproved.

Of particular concern could have been documents from front-line civil servants outlining problems with the government's past and current policies -- calling for more stringent regulations for resource companies, for example -- and showing that the higher administrative or political levels had ignored them when the front lines brought the issues up.

Energy leases improperly renewed inside park boundaries? It's happened before in Alberta. Fish and Wildlife staff overruled when they tried to stop bridge construction during spawning season? It's happened before. Oil and gas leases auctioned off on land that had been earmarked for parks? It's happened before.

Couldn't something like this have accounted for the urgent whistleblowing to the two commissioners in the week after the election?

And could it still be happening, since the NDP made the mistake of not cleaning out Tory sympathizers in the upper levels of the civil service? Say, concerning research into the cumulative effects of tar sands development?

A week before the election, when it began to look as if the NDP might actually win, more than one Albertan told senior New Democrats that the party should have a court order ready to halt any shredding during the transition period. As far as I can tell, though, no one paid any attention.

Clayton and Hourihan have now made 16 sensible recommendations on how the government can tighten controls and policies to ensure documents are preserved, particularly after a change in government. You can read them for yourself.

They should be implemented. Indeed, Service Alberta Minister Danielle Larivee quickly told reporters her department will implement them all. The Wildrose Party's "accountability" critic demanded the same thing, which seems to me to be a little cheeky given the main project currently obsessing the Opposition party is to swiftly  merge with the very PC party that was in office when the shredding took place.

If that merger project is a success, the new united PC-Wildrose Party, probably operating the name Conservative Party of Alberta, will be made up of many of the very same people who may have benefited from the May 2015 shredding.

What the Wildrose Party's unite-the-right project would offer Albertans as an alternative to the NDP is a coalition with the people behind practices like the improper shredding of government documents in May. In other words, the same old same old, business-as-usual crowd.

Talk about shredding the public interest!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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