Abuse of Power

Jason Kenney's many violations of democratic norms

By Duff Conacher

Whether you support or oppose Jason Kenney’s policy decisions, as an Albertan you should be concerned about his government’s dishonesty, secretiveness, lack of ethics, unrepresentative decisions and wastefulness. These five areas of abuse violate international democratic standards for good government. Acting unethically includes not only conflict of interest violations and breach of trust, but any violations of fundamental human rights such as those guaranteed by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Governments that act as Kenney’s does make decisions that are not in the public interest. Each abuse of power is either a dishonest or secretive cover-up of a bad decision, or an unethical, wasteful protection of cabinet ministers’ private interests, the ruling party’s interests or the interests of its supporters.

Kenney’s power and subsequent abuses of office have only grown−as have the concerns of watchdogs, opponents and former allies.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Kenney started his political life in 1989 as the first director of the Alberta Taxpayers Association, headed up the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) in the early 1990s and then became an MP under the Reform Party banner. All of these organizations campaigned for changes to ensure governments are transparent, prevent waste and are accountable. Kenney later sat as a Conservative MP in Stephen Harper’s government. The Conservatives won the 2006 federal election with a platform focused on 52 promised changes (the so-called “Federal Accountability Act”) to increase transparency, restrict lobbyists and political donations, reduce waste, end patronage and cronyism, strengthen ethics laws, make watchdogs more independent from ministerial control and strengthen whistleblower protection.

But the Harper Conservatives, which Kenney supported as a loyal cabinet minister for nine years, failed to implement 24 of their 52 promised changes—even as they claimed to have kept them all. They made six other changes that removed key rules from cabinet ethics law, including the requirements that a minister be honest and avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. The Harper government also repeatedly violated federal election law and undermined other key accountability institutions such as Statistics Canada.

A lack of honesty seems endemic to Kenney’s “war room.” In fact, the Canadian Energy Centre’s entire mandate is based on a false premise.

Kenney brought a similar disdain to provincial politics. When he left Ottawa in June 2016 to seek the leadership of Alberta’s PC party, Kenney continued to claim his $150,000 MP’s salary and benefits. Even his former employer called him out. “Politicians are elected, and paid, to do a job. If they aren’t doing that job, they shouldn’t be getting paid for it,” said Aaron Wudrick, a CTF director. Since that time, Kenney’s power and subsequent abuses of office have only grown—as have the concerns of watchdogs, opponents and former allies alike.

Honesty is key to good government. Kenney, however, often plays fast and loose with the facts. One of the worst examples came soon after he formed government in April 2019, when the new premier claimed the province’s finances were worse than the NDP government had reported. He said the provincial deficit was about $1-billion more than he expected, because the NDP had overstated revenues. He repeated the claims early that June.

But the Kenney government’s own report issued at the end of June showed that the premier was misleading voters. Expenses were about $300-million less than the NDP had projected, revenues were up slightly, and the deficit was $2-billion less than the NDP had projected it would be. Misrepresenting the fiscal picture is a typical tactic of any government that wants to cut public services, and points to the need for a reform that has been implemented at the federal level and in Ontario, where the auditor general issues a report on the actual government revenue and deficit figures so that no party can dishonestly spin the numbers.

Kenney has also misled Albertans by claiming that capital investment in the province dropped because of the NDP and that the carbon tax “killed jobs.” Extensive studies from banks, economic forecasters and research institutes have shown that job losses and reduced investment in Alberta are due to the global collapse in oil and gas prices.

Another example of dishonesty is the Canadian Energy Centre (CEC), established by the Kenney government as a so-called “war room.” Kenney has falsely claimed that Canadian charities, through a mostly foreign-funded and directed campaign, have been producing misinformation aimed at discrediting Alberta’s energy industry. In fact, while Canadian environmental charities have received funding from foreign foundations and the US government, almost 98 per cent of the funding has been directed to conservation projects, health, education grants, arts grants and scientific research, and most of the money for campaigns concerning Canada’s oil and gas industry has come from Canadians. As well, the amount of foreign funding that has flowed to these charities is a small fraction of the amount of foreign funding for Alberta’s energy companies, which were 43 per cent foreign-owned up to 2017.

Meanwhile comparisons by independent analysts, governments and academics—most notably a comprehensive 2018 paper in the journal Science, which compared greenhouse gas emissions from 8,966 oil fields in 90 countries—show clearly that producing a barrel of oil in Canada emits more GHGs than producing a barrel of oil does in almost any other country—the key “misinformation” Kenney seems to resent. In other words, the CEC’s entire mandate is based on a false premise.

But a lack of honesty seems endemic to the CEC. Soon after the centre started up, staff claimed to be “reporters” when interviewing people and hid that they were in fact government employees. The CEC was twice accused of having stolen its logo, in both cases by US tech firms. The centre was caught exaggerating the size of Canada’s oil and gas sector by almost 100 per cent and also exaggerating how many indirect jobs the sector creates.

The UCP government has also made repeated unsubstantiated claims since 2017 that the review of Alberta’s curriculum undertaken when the NDP was in power was “secretive” and “full of left-wing ideology” and not focused on basic literacy and numeracy. In fact, the Notley government’s curriculum process frequently entailed up to 60 people in the same room writing, reviewing and providing feedback on curriculum over several weeks, before the government released draft copies of the curriculum and invited the public to provide feedback. The first such survey, in 2016, received over 32,000 responses. Meanwhile internationalized standardized test results in 2019 found that Alberta’s students were third in the world in reading and fourth in science, and second in Canada in math.

Some government institutions collect and produce information that must be kept secret. Criminals shouldn’t be able to request details about ongoing police investigations; companies shouldn’t be allowed to see formulas or designs that competitors submit to the government’s patent office. If companies could access the personal information you submit to the government, they could invade your privacy.

Beyond these few areas, however, government secrecy is unjustified and often hides corruption, waste and other abuses. Given that the public pays the salaries of politicians and civil servants, and given that transparency is key to ensuring the public can track government decisions and know who is responsible and should be held accountable, all government information should be easily accessible.

The Kenney government has regularly violated this principle. As one example, it structured the Canadian Energy Centre so it isn’t covered by the provincial freedom-of-information laws.  Shielding the centre from public scrutiny, which lets the government hide how much of the CEC’s activity is driven by the Kenney cabinet, was the main reason the UCP government was named the most secretive provincial government in Canada in 2019 by the Canadian Association of Journalists, Ryerson University’s The Centre for Free Expression, News Media Canada, and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

In July 2019 Kenney’s government launched a $2.5-million inquiry into alleged foreign funding for environmental groups and other critics of oil and gas development. Ecojustice requested a judicial review, claiming the inquiry into what Kenney calls “anti-Alberta” activities is politically motivated, has prejudged its conclusions and is outside provincial jurisdiction. The inquiry has since dragged on, changing its terms twice and requesting another $1-million in public funding. Barry Robinson, an Ecojustice lawyer, calls it “the most private public inquiry” he’s ever heard of. No interim report has been released to the public nor has a list of interviewees been disclosed. Said Devon Page, Ecojustice executive director, in September 2020: “What’s the commission trying to hide? Why won’t they release the documents they intend to rely [on] in order to issue a report?”

As well, the Kenney government has not only exploited loopholes in the provincial “open government” law, it also increased the length of time government officials have to respond to information requests by the public from 30 days to 90 days, with an automatic 60-day extension if the government wants it. This makes it much easier to delay the release of damaging records, especially in the months leading up to an election.

Politicians or government officials can undermine good government by protecting their own interests or those of their friends instead of upholding the public interest. Some governments resist the urge better than others; some, like Kenney’s, are shameless.

Most egregiously, the UCP government removed Alberta election commissioner Lorne Gibson from his position in late 2019 when he was investigating members of the governing party, including people involved in Kenney’s own UCP leadership campaign. The move prompted fierce criticism from across the country and the political spectrum, with Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt calling it “a cover-up. Plain and simple.” In December the RCMP opened an investigation into whether Gibson’s firing constituted obstruction of justice.

Meanwhile, members of Kenney’s cabinet claimed the move would save money. In fact, Elections Alberta’s proposed annual budget after the removal showed investigation costs increasing by $78,000.

Alberta’s Chief Electoral Officer took over the additional role of election commissioner and continued the investigation into the UCP leadership race. In July 2020 his office fined a UCP member for obstruction of justice, the 16th UCP member fined in Alberta since 2019 for breaking election laws.

After Kenney announced his “anti-Alberta” inquiry, the justice minister at the time, Doug Schweitzer, appointed the head of the inquiry, which position pays $290,000. Schweitzer chose Steve Allan, who had recently donated to Schweitzer’s UCP leadership campaign and campaigned for him by helping recruit voters and organize election events, including one at his own home. Even leaving aside the glaring conflict of interest, the unconventional appointment—government inquiries are typically led by judges—made it clear that the inquiry isn’t intended to impartially take all evidence into account.

In November 2019 the Kenney government appointed a former executive director of the PC party and UCP, Janice Harrington, to the positions of Health Advocate and Mental Health Advocate. Another questionable appointment came in July 2020, when Kenney appointed Dave Rodney to the newly created $250,000-a-year position of agent general in Houston, Texas, for Invest Alberta. Rodney is the conservative ex-politician who gave up his seat in Calgary-Lougheed so that Kenney could run in a by-election after winning the UCP leadership in 2017. Given the expertise needed to effectively fulfill these kinds of roles, it’s unlikely that a truly merit-based appointment process would have resulted in these people being appointed.

One of the most consequential unethical appointments was the Kenney government’s removal in June 2020 of seven of eight members of the Provincial Court Nominating Committee, even though their terms were incomplete. They were replaced almost exclusively with UCP supporters—including one-time conservative MLAs and UCP donors—whom the government recruited abruptly and in secret. This move undermines the independence of provincial court judges who will be nominated in the future by the PCNC, tainting them with partisanship and, as a result, politicizing the administration of justice in Alberta.

Political finance is another area of rampant unethical relationships in Kenney’s Alberta. As the UCP leadership race scandal involving Jeff Callaway’s “kamikaze” campaign shows, big money can still be raised in provincial politics despite individual donation limits of $4,000. When 10 donors (such as business executives) and their spouses each donate the maximum amount to the same candidate, presto, $80,000 is raised—more, even, than the large corporate donations of the past. Or one donor with $60,000 can find 15 “straw man” donors. The Callaway campaign for the UCP leadership started with such a scheme.

The influence of big donors on party decisions is always a potential danger. In 2019, 580 donors gave the maximum $4,000 to the UCP, whereas only 114 donors gave the maximum to the NDP. For the NDP, only 8 per cent of what they raised came from those who gave the maximum, while 92 per cent came from small donations from numerous people, who are much less likely to have influence. In contrast, almost one-third of what the UCP raised came from big donors.

The Kenney government showed it has no interest in aligning Alberta’s political finance system with the fundamentally democratic principle of one person, one vote. In July 2020 the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association proposed to include in Bill 29 measures to limit donations to a level an average voter can afford, to restrict donations from interest groups that intervene in the election (so-called “third parties”) and to require disclosure of donors and donations before election day. Kenney rejected all of these ideas.

Political finance is only one part of a representative government system. The UCP’s leadership campaign scandal was an early indicator of how Kenney’s government has clearly decided not to govern for all Albertans honestly and ethically but instead dishonestly and unethically and only for the one-third of eligible voters who actually cast a ballot for the UCP.

Meanwhile Alberta has become only the second province to ever unilaterally end its contract with doctors on compensation by passing a law (Bill 21) instead of negotiating a deal. The Kenney government continued its fight by imposing a new payment system on the province’s doctors with Bill 30, which was introduced after little public consultation. The bill also expands privatization of healthcare in Alberta and gives the government greater control over professional colleges, complaint review committees and hearing tribunals that regulate and discipline health professionals such as physicians and nurses.

With Bill 10 the Kenney government took advantage of the coronavirus crisis to give ministers the power to impose new laws, offences and penalties on Albertans without any debates or vote in the legislature. The legislation passed with only 21 of 87 members of the legislature present. Ironically, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms—founded by John Carpay, formerly of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Wildrose Party and UCP—filed an application in court challenging Kenney’s bill, calling it “a betrayal of the electorate and the rule of law” and “an affront to democracy and constitutionalism.”

Bill 1 is another example of the Kenney government being unrepresentative, in this case by defying fundamental rights. Indeed the legislation, like Bill 10, is likely unconstitutional. Three University of Calgary law professors writing in a June ABlawg article argued that it is “an unjustifiable violation of at least five different fundamental rights and freedoms.” Bill 1 essentially criminalizes protests in public spaces. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees is challenging the bill in court on the grounds that it violates Albertans’ right to speak freely and gather to make their voices heard in the policy-making process and to demonstrate against business or government wrongdoing.

The value of any given government spending (or taxes or subsidies) can always be debated, because one person’s waste of public money is another’s important public investment. It’s an open question, for example, whether the provincial government should bail out Alberta’s oil and gas industry.

Two budgets into Kenney’s mandate, however, immeasurable patronage has flowed from the UCP government to the party’s favoured industries and most important donors, organizers and friends. These include executives from both big and smaller-tier oil and gas companies along with related exploration, pipeline, energy services and construction companies, real estate developers and ranchers. Kenney backed the Keystone XL pipeline with $1.5-billion in public money and a $6-billion government loan guarantee; he cut the corporate tax rate from 12 per cent to 8 per cent; he dismissed news that oil and gas companies owe $173-million in unpaid taxes to rural municipalities, telling reporters “You can’t wring money from a stone.”

In April and May the UCP government shut down land, air and water monitoring by the Alberta Energy Regulator, using the excuse that COVID-19 made it too dangerous. In fact, the scientists who did the monitoring quickly pointed out that the shutdown was completely unnecessary, as they could easily take their own vehicles instead of riding together, and that the monitoring in mostly rural areas involves almost no contact with other people. A freedom of information request from Global News later showed that companies had asked for the suspension for “purely economic” reasons. Kenney’s government also didn’t consult the Alberta public or the NWT government before it cut environmental monitoring, both of which it’s required to consult by law.

And another ironic example stands out. In spring 2020 the Canadian Taxpayers Federation nominated the Canadian Energy Centre (headed by musician and one-time UCP candidate Tom Olsen) for its award for the most wasteful provincial-government project in the country.

Government watchdogs, critics from all political backgrounds and even former allies have spoken out against Kenney’s many violations of democratic standards for good government. If he gets away with these abuses, he will set precedents that could encourage future Alberta governments (and perhaps governments elsewhere) to further push the envelope of bad, undemocratic governance. And if the patterns of Donald Trump and others whose governments have violated these standards hold for Alberta, Kenney won’t cease—until he is stopped by legally binding orders from tribunals and courts, or by losing the next provincial election.

Duff Conacher is a founder and the director of Democracy Watch, which since 1993 has won more than 180 changes to federal and provincial laws.


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