The Alberta government may be losing momentum in its crusade against supposed “foreign-funded special interests” working against the province’s oilpatch, with the deadline for commissioner Steve Allan’s report delayed four months and his terms of reference adjusted to acknowledge that he might not actually find any foreign influence over the industry.
The hints appear in a CBC story on a legal brief Allan filed August 27, after environmental law charity Ecojustice filed for an injunction to suspend his work.
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Ecojustice had previously “filed a judicial review application in November 2019 that asked the Court of Queen’s Bench to shut down Allan’s inquiry,” CBC writes. “It alleged the inquiry was created for partisan political purposes outside the authority of the Public Inquiries Act and had been tainted by bias from the outset.”
Ecojustice requested the injunction after the hearing on its original application was postponed indefinitely by the coronavirus pandemic, noting that Allan “had not provided information on how organizations will be allowed to respond to his findings,” CBC says. “The charity said it and others may suffer ‘irreparable reputational harm’ if Allan releases those findings under a process not yet fully defined, and before the court rules whether the inquiry is valid.”
Allan called that position “speculative”, claiming Ecojustice could not show any imminent risk of harm that would justify the injunction.
But while that argument plays out, the CBC report contains some indications that Allan’s inquiry may be running out of steam.
It’s been more than a year since Premier Jason Kenney announced the commission, complete with a C$2.5-million budget, after making it a centrepiece of his 2019 provincial election campaign. On June 25, Energy Minister and former pipeline executive Sonya Savage announced a four-month extension and a $1-million budget increase for Allan. “She also changed the wording of the inquiry’s terms of reference in a way that hinted at the possibility that foreign funding of anti-Alberta energy campaigns may not have actually happened,” CBC says.
The adjusted mandate says Allan “shall inquire into the role of foreign funding, if any, in anti-Alberta energy campaigns,” CBC reported at the time.
Savage followed that up with an August 5 cabinet order that set more modest expectations for the inquiry’s output. That order-in-council “added a phrase that says Allan ‘may’ make findings and recommendations related to raising awareness of any foreign funding of anti-energy campaigns, how the government can best respond to those campaigns, and any additional eligibility criteria for grants that the province should consider,” the national broadcaster writes. “All of those were outlined as expectations under the inquiry’s original terms of reference.” And Allan’s legal brief in response to the Ecojustice injunction “suggests this reframing gave him direction he lacked for nearly the first year of the inquiry.”
The change in mandate “put Allan in a position, for the first time, to gauge the more precise and exact nature of the parties and activities regarding which he had an obligation to report,” the legal brief says, allowing parties to respond to his findings with “a view to satisfying the obligations of procedural fairness which Ecojustice says is owed to it.”
As for the evidence Allan is likely to find, the overheated claims of foreign-funded influence have been debunked, most exhaustively by oilpatch journalist Markham Hislop.
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