Edmonton·Opinion

Allan inquiry's credibility unravelling as fast as its confused mandate

The outcome of a public inquiry is supposed to be based on facts, not on what a government minister would like to see. This inquiry, though, is based more on farce than fact.

Steve Allan was handed a confusing, if not impossible, task, writes Graham Thomson

The Allan inquiry has until July 30 to submit its report to the government. The government is then supposed to make the report public within 90 days afterwards. (CBC)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.


When Jason Kenney is finished hosting the traditional premier's pancake breakfast at the Calgary Stampede this July, might I suggest he take on another more colourful role at the "Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth": that of sideshow carnival barker.

With a hearty "Step right up!" Kenney could usher us rubes into the funhouse known as the "Steve Allan Public Inquiry."

For that is what the inquiry has become: a house of mirrors worthy of a trashy midway.

Or, considering the $3.5-million price tag for a job one year behind schedule, a house of horrors.

Commissioned in July 2019 with a mandate to "inquire into the role of foreign funding in anti-Alberta energy campaigns," it is a "public" inquiry that has done nothing public except become a notable embarrassment to the Kenney government.

It is a clown car filled with deadline extensions that pop out relentlessly, one after the other.

The original report was supposed to be delivered to the government in July 2020 but that target was extended to October, then January, then May and now July.

The government has blamed the delays variously on the pandemic, the need to ensure "fairness" in the process, and a court challenge from the environmental group Ecojustice.

The real reason is that Allan was handed a confusing, if not impossible, task.

He was supposed to uncover "any foreign organization" that was financially supporting Canadian organizations that had "disseminated misleading or false information about the Alberta oil and gas industry" with the intent of land-locking Alberta oil.

It's a vague, all-encompassing mandate that seemed to be nothing more than a politically inspired witch hunt against environmental groups that had every right to protest against pipelines and/or the oilsands.

The mandate began to unravel last June when Allan bluntly declared he didn't have the time or resources for the "colossal undertaking" needed to fact-check whether a statement made by an organization was misleading or false.

At the same time, the government quietly changed the wording of Allan's mandate to suggest perhaps there wasn't any foreign funded conspiracy, after all.

Credibility lost 

Energy Minister Sonya Savage altered the terms of reference to include the qualifier "if any," as in "inquire into the role of foreign funding, if any, in anti-Alberta energy campaigns."

The only thing unravelling faster than the inquiry's mandate has been its credibility. Not that it had much to begin with.

The non-public inquiry is a creature of Kenney's "fight back" strategy articulated during the 2019 election campaign. It includes the absurd War Room, an ineffectual referendum on equalization and a self-defeating, never-ending conflict with the federal Liberal government.

It is an out-of-date strategy formulated before COVID-19 had Kenney appealing to Ottawa for help, before the price of oil went negative, before Albertans saw Kenney as less appealing than Prime Minister Trudeau.

It is not a strategy based on reality but on rhetoric.

It is part of Kenney's political schtick where he blames Alberta's troubles not on a world moving away from fossil fuels but on shady enemies, domestic and foreign.

Allan has routinely refused interviews but someone who has talked to him says he regrets getting involved in the inquiry.

Donna Kennedy-Glans, a former Conservative MLA who sat on the government's "fair deal" panel, told the CBC's West of Centre podcast that she suggested to Allan last year he should simply stop the inquiry.

"It's almost like it's become a negotiation between Steve and the team that supports him and the minister of energy," said Kennedy-Glans. "And it's like no one's really clear or happy about what the outcome is supposed to be."

The outcome of a public inquiry is supposed to be based on facts, not on what a government minister would like to see.

This inquiry, though, is based more on farce than fact.

Having said that, there is indeed a foreign-based movement making life more difficult for Alberta's energy industry. It is a global shift away from oil and gas.

It is the French-based energy company, Total, writing off $9.3 billion worth of oilsands assets as a bad bet. It is the Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank declaring it was joining a list of European financial companies blacklisting new oilsands projects for environmental reasons.

It is Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund announcing last week it is selling all of its 51 million shares in Calgary-based Suncor Energy.

The Allan inquiry has until July 30 to submit its report to the government. The government is then supposed to make the report public within 90 days.

If all goes according to plan, we will get to see the Allan report by the end of October. 

But when has anything gone to plan for the Allan inquiry?

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