What’s up with Canadian premiers and their infatuation with secret meetings? There are two types of secret meetings: those that give the premiers an opportunity to test drive a contentious position to gauge political support (a “trial balloon”) and those that are a bizarre waste of time because they undermine transparency and public confidence.
First prize for a bizarre waste of time goes to Ms Redford who blew off a meeting with Mr Mulcair, the most vocal (and one might argue most cogent) opponent to the development of the Alberta oil sands, so she could attend the secretive Bilderberg conference. Ms Redford justified the trip as an opportunity to meet with politicians, financial leaders and academics to discuss monetary policy, ecological challenges and responsible development of natural resources. To silence those of us who were concerned about the “cone of silence” aspect, she promised to report back on her discussions in due course.
Ms Redford does not disappoint. The Final Report on her Bilderberg junket is now available. It was posted on the Alberta government website—late Friday and with no accompanying press release—and sank like a stone. The reason for the lack of fanfare is obvious—the dearth of information is breathtaking. Strip out the sections labelled overview, mission objectives and the delegation (if you can call Ms Redford and her executive assistant a “delegation”), and the report is exactly two sentences (52 words) long. Here it is:
The Premier’s participation advanced the Alberta government’s more aggressive effort to engage world decision makers in Alberta’s strategic interests, and to talk about Alberta’s place in the world. The mission sets the stage for further relationship-building with existing partners and potential partners with common interests in investment, innovation and public policy.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the PC’s $14 million PR department simply took the May press release that said Ms Redford was going to Bilderberg and changed the verb tense to say Ms Redford went to Bilderberg. Why it took almost 2 months to accomplish this feat of PR wizardry is a mystery, but there it is.
All kidding aside, I suspect the reason why Ms Redford’s report is nothing more than bafflegab stems from the fact that the Bilderberg conference really is a secret meeting and its attendees are sworn to secrecy (known in biz-speak as the requirement of confidentiality so that the participants can speak freely)…so that’s that.
An example of the “trial balloon” secret meeting is the BC premier’s meeting with Alison Redford earlier this week. All the premiers are heading to Halifax next week to attend the Council of the Federation meeting. Ms Redford’s Canadian Energy Strategy and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline will be on the agenda. Rather than wait to meet in Halifax the BC premier, Ms Clark, “…secretly flew into Edmonton on Thursday to meet with…Alison Redford. She also stopped in Saskatoon earlier that day for a meeting with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who supports the pipeline”.*
Ms Redford needs BC’s support for the Northern Gateway pipeline but it would be political suicide for Ms Clark to provide it unless she gets something meaningful back in return. So far BC voters are not convinced that more jobs outweigh the environmental risks.
Ms Clark may have launched the following trial balloon: BC should receive a share of Alberta’s royalty revenues (perhaps in the form of a surcharge on royalties) generated by the oil companies developing the oil sands.**
Oh to be a fly on the wall! Ms Clark: Alison, there’s no way I can sell Northern Gateway to the BC people unless they get some long term economic benefits, say a share of the royalty revenue stream…? Ms Redford: You’ve got to be kidding! I’m not getting enough now to cover the cost of new hospitals, new schools, the highway to Fort McMurray…and don’t get me started on those cranky old people who want decent food. Ms Clark: I’ve sat on the fence too long and that wretch Adrian Dix is crucifying me so unless I come home from the premiers meeting with something for all BC-ites, I’m cooked my dear, and so are you. Ms Redford: This conversation is …incredibly frustrating!
Actually Ms Redford really did say that last bit. The National Post reports that “Ms Redford came out of the meeting disappointed that Clark has refused to state a position on the pipeline. “It’s incredibly frustrating”. I suspect Ms Redford is being a little coy. She probably knows the position Ms Clark will take in Halifax—and she doesn’t like it. If Ms Clark’s “share the royalties” solution gains the support of Ontario and Quebec (and why shouldn’t it), the first concrete example of Redford’s Canadian Energy Strategy will be unpalatable to the oilsands producers and hence to the PC government. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
That’s why our premiers like secret meetings. In the hands of a skillful politician they can deliver a powerful political result. Unfortunately the opposite is also true, in the hands of less savvy politicians they can lead to unacceptable political fallout. Politicians will continue to create public policy under the cloak of secrecy. It’s up to us to keep a watchful eye on who they’re meeting with and for what purpose.
*National Post July 21, 2012 A10.
**This is sheer speculation on my part, but it’s something I would do if I were Ms Clark.