Redford government ducking a legal broadside

Redford government ducking a legal broadside by Graham Thomson, October 8, 2013, Edmonton Journal
One week and counting. It’s been one week since Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Richard Marceau handed down his scathing decision against the Alberta government for barring two environmental groups from an oilsands expansion hearing. The government has been ducking the issue ever since. It won’t say whether it will appeal the decision. It won’t even properly acknowledge the decision at all. At first, environment officials said they needed more time to study the decision. On Thursday, instead of addressing the court ruling, Environment Minister Diana McQueen chose to attack critics who had used the court ruling to attack the government.

On Friday, Premier Alison Redford not only refused to address the concerns raised by Justice Marceau, she argued with reporters who asked her questions about the harsh decision, saying they “characterized the decision incorrectly.” No, they didn’t.

Just so there’s no confusion, let’s revisit the court ruling. Among other things, it described the government’s environmental review process as “tainted” and “fatally flawed” and suffering from a “direct apprehension of bias.” The ruling dealt with a 2012 complaint launched by two environmental organizations — the Pembina Institute and the Fort McMurray Environmental Association — after they were barred from participating in an environmental hearing on an application by the Southern Pacific Resource group to expand its oilsands project near Fort McKay. Publicly the government said the two groups were not directly affected by the project and therefore had no standing in the hearing. However, what Justice Marceau discovered — and what he reproduced in full in his ruling — was a scheming internal government briefing note that only came to light during the court proceedings. Putting it bluntly, the note written by a senior environment official said the government was only interested in hearing from organizations that were relatively friendly to the oilsands and the government wanted to bar organizations deemed to be unfriendly.

Justice Marceau saw this as such an egregious violation of the province’s own environmental legislation that he drew an analogy to a groundbreaking court case from 50 years ago: “It is difficult to envision a more direct apprehension of bias unless it is the Premier of Quebec telling the Quebec Liquor Commission to revoke a restaurateur’s liquor licence because the proprietor of the restaurant is a Jehovah’s Witness as happened in Roncarelli vs. Duplessis.” The Roncarelli case of 1959 is a classic example of a province breaking its own laws to punish someone it doesn’t like. By drawing the Roncarelli comparison, Justice Marceau couldn’t have been more clear, or more damning, in his ruling against the Alberta government.

Yet the government refuses to even acknowledge the judge’s strong language and blistering conclusion. The premier answered reporters’ questions by not really answering their questions: “I still think that the position that we have taken is a position that is appropriate, that we want to ensure that regulatory processes proceed, that we are dealing with relevant facts and that we are dealing with people who are directly affected.” It is a typically Redfordian answer, one that bogs down in legalese and avoids the real issue. Redford has done this repeatedly. When confronted by her broken promise to balance the provincial budget, she refused to acknowledge she ever made such a promise and instead talked of a promise kept to build more schools. … It is legalese versus common sense. Perhaps Redford could win her arguments in a court of law; she might not do as well in the court of public opinion. Come to think of it, her government hasn’t done so well in the Court of Queen’s Bench — not when that court compares the actions of a 21st-century Alberta government to the actions of a notorious Quebec government in 1959. [Emphasis added]

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