Documents show Alberta government drafted op-ed for chair of MacKinnon panel

Critics are questioning the stated independence of a panel that reviewed Alberta’s finances after documents show the government drafted talking points and an op-ed for panel chair Janice MacKinnon.

Critics, experts say documents raise questions about panel's impartiality

A woman speaks at a podium.
Government officials drafted an op-ed at the direction of premier's office for Janice MacKinnon, chair of the blue ribbon panel on Alberta's finances. MacKinnon approved the piece, which was based on her own speaking notes, but critics say the revelation raises questions about the panel's independence. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Critics are questioning the independence of a panel that reviewed Alberta's finances last year, after documents emerged that show the government drafted talking points and an op-ed for the panel chair.

The documents, obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour through a freedom of information request, show government officials wrote talking points for Janice MacKinnon ahead of the panel's public introduction on May 7. MacKinnon reviewed and revised the message before delivering remarks at the news conference.

At the direction of Premier Jason Kenney's office, those talking points were then used to draft an op-ed article approved by MacKinnon and published under her name in the Calgary Herald on May 10, the documents show.

"It is clear that some of this communication is based on things that originated with MacKinnon," said Lori Williams, a political scientist with Mount Royal University. 

"But the notion that this communication was sort of being managed by the government rather than by the person who is doing the independent investigation does raise questions about objectivity and impartiality." 

MacKinnon, a former Saskatchewan finance minister, led the six-person panel hired by the government to find a path toward a balanced Alberta budget without raising taxes. 

"I think Albertans will be very well served to have independent expert advice from this panel," Kenney said when he named the panel.

The government used the panel's final recommendations as the framework for a number of budget decisions, from changes to post-secondary funding to public sector compensation

Unusual level of support, expert says

The exchanges in the document date back to May 6, the day before the blue-ribbon panel was introduced. In an email, a government communications official sent MacKinnon draft speaking notes for the next day's news conference. 

"Here's a quick re-write. I'll review it and am open to any comments," MacKinnon responded, though the original draft and revisions were redacted from the documents. 

The official wrote back: "Premier's office would also like an op-ed to go out from you as chair. Can you look at the following draft, which is based on your speaking notes?" 

"The op-ed is great. Well done, I have no changes," MacKinnon wrote in reply. 

The official responded with a request for more edits from the premier's office, the documents show, which MacKinnon approved.

The documents show government officials communicated with the Herald to organize the publication of the op-ed. There is no indication that MacKinnon corresponded with the newspaper about the piece. 

"If we act now to balance Alberta's budget in a measured way over a period of time, we can make difficult choices while protecting front-line services and programs," the op-ed read, in part. 

Premier Jason Kenney said Alberta was well-served by the independent blue ribbon panel at a press conference with MacKinnon in May. (CBC)

A government routinely provides support to independent panels on matters such as access to government information, hiring outside contractors and sharing briefing notes, said University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley.

But there's a difference, he said, between that level of collaboration and an op-ed drafted by government officials at the direction of the premier's office, then printed under MacKinnon's name. 

"It's unusual that that kind of in-depth support would be provided to an arm's-length, independent commission, and that kind of support would be provided to them as early in the process as it was," Wesley said. 

MacKinnon did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News. 

Critics, government battle over interpretation

The email exchanges show MacKinnon was given an opportunity to approve changes to the op-ed. At one point, she asked a government official to delete a section of the article that had been added to meet word count. But it's unclear what she changed, because the revisions are redacted. 

MacKinnon was also given the choice to write her own speaking notes or have drafts provided to her by government officials, the documents show. 

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the government used the panel's stated impartiality as cover to push the premier's message. 

"This is clearly a political report that was designed to deliver the UCP's preordained conclusions," McGowan said. 

Contacted by the CBC, a spokesperson for Finance Minister Travis Toews issued a statement saying it's not unusual for a panel to receive administrative support from department officials.

Toews later issued a second statement, calling MacKinnon an "esteemed public intellectual" who shared her opinions without influence in the panel's final report. 

"It is deeply insulting for the NDP-linked Alberta Federation of Labour to insinuate that Dr. MacKinnon – the first female minister of finance in Canadian history – spoke words or advocated positions that she did not personally agree with," Toews said.

"It is unsettling that anyone would advocate and proliferate this nonsense. I would hope that the Alberta NDP ask their friends in the AFL to immediately cease these appalling attacks on Dr. MacKinnon."

Lori Williams, the Mount Royal political scientist, said the documents raise questions about government transparency, not MacKinnon's reputation. 

"This issue here is whether, to what extent the investigation was actually independent. And this correspondence calls that into question." 

With files from Raffy Boudjikanian