After two years, four extensions and $1 million in extra funding, the Kenney government’s public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns is finally getting somewhere. In a June 18 news release (a Friday afternoon, no less), the so-called “Allan Inquiry” announced formal legal notices had been sent to 40 organizations describing the inquiry’s view of their conduct and asking them to respond confidentially by mid-July. According to the content of those notices, the inquiry hopes to deliver its long-overdue report by the end of July.
Nobody should be expecting anything groundbreaking, though. Indeed, the notices betray just how weak commissioner Steve Allan’s hand is, and how unlikely it now seems that his report will fulfil the reckoning Jason Kenney repeatedly promised for environmental groups. Allan wrote: “Should I ultimately make a finding in respect of you, I will clearly declare that such a finding, if any, does not in any way suggest that the activities on which I might base a finding have been unlawful or dishonest, or that the conduct on which I might base a finding should in any way be impugned.”
I take this to mean that even if he finds something about the environmental organizations he was charged with investigating, he has no intention of suggesting their behaviour was in any way illegal or even wrong. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, this is how the public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns ends: not with a bang but with a whimper.
For a government that has built its brand around its willingness to “fight back” against its perceived enemies, near and far, this has to be very disappointing. It’s the equivalent of a boxer refusing to come out for the final round, knowing there’s no way he can land a knockout punch, much less win the fight with the judges.
But Allan’s failure to deliver for his government shouldn’t diminish the seriousness of its behaviour. This was clearly an attempt to intimidate and threaten the oil and gas industry’s environmental critics, and it stands in stark contrast to the government’s supposed embrace of ESG (environment, sustainability, and governance) criteria. It has also consumed thousands of hours and many thousands of dollars for the environmental non-governmental organizations that have been placed under Allan’s lens.
It brings to mind the famous words of Edward R. Murrow, who bravely spoke out against a similar effort in the United States by Joseph McCarthy nearly 60 years ago. “The line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly… we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.”
As a trained forensic accountant, Steve Allan is being careful not to assert wrongdoing or criminality in his forthcoming findings. But there’s an entire ecosystem affiliated with (and sometimes directly employed by) the Kenney administration that won’t be nearly as careful. They will weaponize his work, attack the organizations even after Allan states they have done nothing wrong and advance the false narrative that Alberta’s economic problems are a result of a small group of external actors rather than tectonic shifts in global markets.
They may live to regret that if a future government uses this precedent for their own political purposes. If Rachel Notley’s NDP is put back into power in 2023, it could easily strike its own public inquiry into foreign funding of conservative think tanks. It could start with the Atlas Network, which has received funding from the Koch Family Foundations, the Bradley Foundation and other leading right-wing American organizations, and lists groups like the Alberta Institute, the Canadian Constitution Foundation and the Canada Strong and Free Network (formerly the Manning Centre) as “partners” on its website.
By using the inquiry power to harass its political enemies rather than serve the public interest, the UCP has opened a Pandora’s box it may not be able to close. Then again, it may not want to. But for the rest of us, the fiasco and farce of the Allan Inquiry should serve as a reminder of why government-sanctioned investigations into the political speech of private citizens should not be tolerated.
The ability to speak truth to power may not always be popular, especially when the power in question is your own. But the alternative, as we caught a glimpse of with the UCP’s shambolic public inquiry, is far worse. And the fact that Albertans dodged an incompetently fired bullet won’t make the next one any less lethal in the hands of a more skilled marksman.