Advocates criticize war room for secrecy, potential for corruption

Advocates for openness and transparency in government are warning the secrecy around Alberta’s new $30 million Canadian Energy Centre leaves it vulnerable to corruption and cronyism. 

Canadian Energy Centre will be exempt from freedom of information laws

Energy Minister Sonya Savage is one of the three directors of the Canadian Energy Centre. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Advocates for openness and transparency in government are warning the secrecy around Alberta's new $30 million Canadian Energy Centre (CEC) leaves it vulnerable to corruption and cronyism. 

This week, Alberta's government said the CEC, commonly known as the energy war room, will be a private corporation, meaning most of its operations will be exempt from freedom of information legislation. 

Information about how the CEC spends its money and awards contracts won't be accessible to Albertans, raising concerns that public money will go to politically-connected insiders. 

Duff Conacher, co-founder of advocacy group Democracy Watch, said this secrecy can waste public dollars.  

"Exempting any government public organization from the access to information law is a recipe for waste and corruption and abuse of the public and the public interest," he said. 

"So it's a very dangerous move to be making."

Christine Myatt, press secretary to Premier Jason Kenney, told CBC News on Friday that accountability measures will be put in place. 

"Firstly, the CEC is subject to audit by the auditor general," she wrote. "In addition, as part of the CEC's setup, the board of directors – the ministers of energy, environment, and justice on behalf of the Crown – will be putting in place appropriate procurement disclosure policies."

'Poor excuse' 

The decision to incorporate the CEC is the latest controversy surrounding the organization which was an election promise of Premier Jason Kenney and the UCP.

The organization will counter what the government considers to be misinformation about the oil and gas industry. But critics are concerned it will stifle free speech and demonize people who raise concerns about the industry's effect on climate change. 

Myatt said the CEC was made a private corporation so information about its strategies are out of the reach of the "very foreign-funded special interests the CEC is looking to counter." 

Conacher says this claim is "bogus." He says FOIP allows governments to redact information to protect public safety.

"(It) is just being used as a very poor excuse for excessive secrecy that will likely lead to abuse," he said. 

The CEC is still subject to the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) but Alberta's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner says it isn't a substitute for FOIP.

PIPA applies to the collection, use, disclosure and safeguarding of a person's personal information, meaning an individual can request access to their own information, but that's it. 

"(PIPA) does not, however, provide individuals, or the public, a right of access to general information concerning an organization's operations, such as is afforded by the FOIP Act in respect of public bodies,"  OIPC communications manager Scott Sibbald said in an email to CBC News. 

"Generally, the commissioner believes the right to know should encompass entities that receive government funds when it is clearly in the public interest. Such actions contribute to the democratic values of accountability and transparency."

'Friends and insiders'

Sean Holman, an associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said FOIP legislation is the only mechanism members of the public have to force governments to disclose information they want to keep secret. 

Holman shares Conacher's concerns about possible abuses by an organization operating without the public accountability offered by access to information.

"There's obviously the potential for friends and insiders to get various different contract work from this organization," he said. 

"We will never know unless someone blows the whistle on what exactly is happening within this organization. And if they stack it with loyalists, what are the chances of that actually happening?"

Energy Minister Sonya Savage said on Wednesday that the government hopes to have the CEC operating by the end of the year. 

Former journalist, lobbyist and UCP candidate Tom Olsen was named the managing director. 


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