War room strate­gies top se­cret

In­ner work­ings not sub­ject to trans­parency law

Edmonton Sun - - NEWS - JANET French @jantafrenc­h

There’s a prob­lem­atic veil of se­crecy over what will hap­pen inside the Al­berta gov­ern­ment’s war room to com­bat “mis­in­for­ma­tion” about the oil and gas in­dus­try, say democ­racy watch­ers.

Mount Royal Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­ence professor Duane Bratt said he was puz­zled when he heard the in­ter­nal work­ings of the cit­i­zen-funded Cana­dian En­ergy Cen­tre would not be sub­ject to free­dom of in­for­ma­tion and pri­vacy (FOIP) law in the province.

“I thought the pur­pose was trans­parency, and to cor­rect mis­per­cep­tions and to be open,” Bratt said on Fri­day. “That seems to be con­tra­dic­tory to in­cor­po­rat­ing this.”

The gov­ern­ment ful­filled an elec­tion prom­ise to cre­ate a war room when it in­cor­po­rated the en­ergy cen­tre on Wed­nes­day.

The Crown is the sole owner, and it will be gov­erned by a board of three peo­ple — the min­is­ters of en­ergy, fi­nance and en­vi­ron­ment and parks.

It is the only Al­berta cor­po­ra­tion with this gov­er­nance struc­ture, due to its un­prece­dented role, ac­cord­ing to Al­berta En­ergy.

Faced with ques­tions about the pub­lic’s view of its in­ter­nal machi­na­tions, Pre­mier Ja­son Ken­ney’s spokes­woman Chris­tine My­att said in a Thurs­day state­ment only in­for­ma­tion ex­changed be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the cen­tre would be sub­ject to free­dom of in­for­ma­tion re­quests by the pub­lic.

“The CEC’S in­ter­nal op­er­a­tions are not sub­ject to FOIP, as this would pro­vide a tac­ti­cal and/or strate­gic ad­van­tage to the very for­eign-funded spe­cial in­ter­ests the CEC is look­ing to counter,” My­att said. “For ex­am­ple, we would not let those for­eign-funded spe­cial in­ter­ests seek­ing to at­tack our province see our de­tailed de­fence plans.”

The cen­tre, with a $30-mil­lion an­nual bud­get, will be sub­ject to over­sight by the au­di­tor gen­eral and the whistle­blower pro­tec­tion act.

Un­like pub­lic agen­cies, boards and com­mis­sions, the cen­tre will not be re­quired to pub­lish the salaries of top-earn­ing em­ploy­ees on a pub­lic list.

Tom Olsen, a former jour­nal­ist, un­suc­cess­ful UCP can­di­date and press sec­re­tary to former pre­mier Ed Stel­mach, will run the Cal­gary-based cen­tre for a $194,252 salary. The op­er­a­tion should be open by Christ­mas, En­ergy Min­is­ter Sonya Sav­age said Wed­nes­day.

Ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns, pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tions and so­cial media posts could all be part of the cen­tre’s work, along with data gath­er­ing and a “rapid re­sponse” team that will at­tempt to pre­dict and get ahead of mis­in­for­ma­tion, she said.

Although the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Petroleum Pro­duc­ers also pro­motes the in­dus­try as eth­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble, pres­i­dent and CEO Tim Mcmil­lan said in a writ­ten state­ment Fri­day the or­ga­ni­za­tion is happy for gov­ern­ment help.

“We are look­ing for­ward to see­ing an­other strong and cred­i­ble voice that will stand up for the oil and natural gas in­dus­try and help push back on the re­lent­less cam­paigns that tar­get the liveli­hoods of the over half-mil­lion women and men that are di­rectly or in­di­rectly em­ployed by our in­dus­try,” his state­ment said.

Sean Hol­man, a Mount Royal Univer­sity jour­nal­ism professor who stud­ies or­ga­ni­za­tional ac­count­abil­ity, said it’s trou­bling and “Or­wellian” that a pub­licly funded body tasked with iden­ti­fy­ing peo­ple who dis­agree with the gov­ern­ment can op­er­ate out of the pub­lic eye.

In a well-func­tion­ing democ­racy, groups are en­cour­aged to chal­lenge big business and gov­ern­ments, he said.

Sav­age has said the cen­tre is tasked with fram­ing the story of Cana­dian oil, not tar­get­ing in­di­vid­u­als.

The Cana­dian En­ergy Cen­tre’s name also im­plies the “en­ergy” in­dus­try is lim­ited to petroleum prod­ucts, Hol­man said.

“It would be more ad­van­ta­geous for the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment to in­stead look to spon­sor some of those al­ter­na­tive forms of en­ergy as op­posed to fight­ing what I think is ul­ti­mately a los­ing, de­fen­sive ac­tion for an in­dus­try that is in­evitably go­ing to have to change,” Hol­man said.

Bratt is skep­ti­cal of the war room’s premise. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists with­out fund­ing from for­eign or­ga­ni­za­tion’s aren’t A-OK with the oil­sands, he said.

“The na­ture of pop­ulism is that you have to find en­e­mies,” he said.

The Cana­dian En­ergy Cen­tre makes it sound like a think tank, Bratt said. No one’s go­ing to call it by its for­mal name, he said.

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