Dec 102012
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Alison Redford's impact on tobacco lawsuit blown out of proportion.

by Ricardo Acuña
To hear the mainstream media and Alberta's opposition parties tell it, this is the biggest story to hit Alberta politics in decades. In case you missed it, here's what happened: CBC investigative reporter Charles Rusnell uncovered documents showing that Alison Redford, while she was Justice Minister, had some input into the selection of which law firm the government would hire to represent the province in a $10-billion lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

Brian Mason, leader of Alberta's New Democrats, characterized it in an Edmonton Journal story as the worst incident involving a premier he had seen in his 12 years as an MLA. Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson was quoted in the same media story as saying "the biggest scandal in the premier's office in history, period." There are calls for the province's ethics commissioner to investigate and even calls for the Premier to resign.

I, however, can't for the life of me figure out why this is such a big deal.

The allegation is that Redford played a part in hiring her ex-husband's firm to represent the province.

A competitive bid process had been held in late 2010 and the selection committee identified three firms that would be equally capable of carrying out the lawsuit. The issue arises from a memo wherein Redford recognizes that all three firms would be good, and then states, "Considering the perceived conflicts of interest, actual conflicts of interest, the structure of the contingency arrangements and the importance of a 'made in Alberta' litigation plan, the best choice for Alberta will be the International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers."

One of the members of the consortium known as International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers is the Calgary firm of Jensen, Shawa, Solomon, Duguid, Hawkes. Redford's ex-husband, Robert Hawkes, is a partner in that firm. The allegation is that Redford played a part in hiring her ex-husband's firm to represent the province.

The Premier certainly hasn't made this any easier for herself in the legislature by overly minimizing her role in the process and seriously skirting the line between downplaying an issue and misrepresenting herself, but the bottom line remains that this should not be the huge story that it is.

An independent selection committee carried out the competitive bidding process and identified that all three firms were equally capable. The Premier, for ostensibly good reasons, highlighted which one she felt would do the best job. The government, without Redford's involvement, entered into negotiations with that firm, and by the time the contract was signed six months later, Redford was not even in cabinet anymore.

Hawkes will not be involved in the actual litigation, and Alberta's conflict of interest laws do not even include ex-spouses. It's also important to point out that one of the other three firms being considered has a long-standing relationship with the Conservative Party in Alberta and the third firm was based in Ontario.

Redford’s ex-husband will not be involved in the actual litigation, and Alberta’s conflict of interest laws do not even include ex-spouses.

Did the Premier make a bad call by getting involved in the process? Probably. Should she have owned that outright and apologized when questioned in the Legislature? Definitely. Is this the biggest scandal ever to hit Alberta, or even a scandal at all? Absolutely not.

So what's at play here? One of the things to consider, as Alberta blogger David Climenhaga so clearly articulates in a recent posting, is Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith's long-standing cozy relationship with people and organizations that shill for the tobacco industry.

In her role as a Calgary Herald reporter, in her work at the Fraser Institute, and even in her current role as leader of the opposition, Smith has always advocated that taxes on tobacco products should be reduced or eliminated, that the legal age for purchasing tobacco should not be increased, and she even once argued that smoking can actually reduce "traditional risks of disease." Is this all just a play by Smith and her caucus to attempt to delegitimize the Alberta government's suit against the tobacco industry? The more she hammers the way in which the law firm leading the suit was selected, the less supportive of the suit itself Albertans are likely to become.

Turning this into a big scandal enables Danielle Smith to protect the interests of big tobacco and further alienates us from our government and our desire to pay taxes.

Another factor to consider is one that also serves the purpose of the Wildrose and the province's extremist right. As the right's think tanks and media mouthpieces have shifted our political spectrum further right than we would have thought imaginable 30 years ago, one of the main things they've tried to do is convince us that politicians are untrustworthy, corrupt and self-interested.

They've done this for two explicit purposes. The first is that it leads to the mythology that government is by nature inefficient, and that by extension all government services should be privatized. The second is that, by driving a wedge between citizens and their elected representatives, they drive a wedge between citizens and their government — and that wedge, combined with the mythology of inefficiency and corruption, is what makes us buy into their repeated mantra that taxes are too high.

In other words, the right relies on the fact that the more we distrust our leaders and government, the less we will want to pay taxes, and the more likely we are to want to support their extremist right-wing ideology.

So, turning this into a big scandal enables Smith to protect the interests of big tobacco and further alienates us from our government and our desire to pay taxes.

Unfortunately, the Liberals and the NDP, who should be wary of both those outcomes, seem to have fully bought-in to the story and are also working hard to add fuel to the fire. It's time for everybody to take a step back from this, pull it off of the front pages, and start paying attention to some of the issues our province is facing that will really make a difference over the long term.

About Ricardo Acuña

Ricardo Acuña is Executive Director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.

© Copyright 2012 Ricardo Acuña, All rights Reserved. Written For:

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