This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News:
Mind your own business, Alberta!
This seems to be the message behind Ed Stelmach’s plan to amend the Mines and Minerals Act to make it impossible for citizens to so much as ask nicely for information about how the province calculates royalties paid by energy extraction corporations.
Never mind that it is our business – after all, we own the oil and gas. If you think that, Premier Stelmach and Energy Minister Mel Knight have this to say to you: Trust us. And if that’s not good enough, well then, shut up and get lost!
A warning flag on this idea was raised last week by Frank Work, Alberta’s independent Information and Privacy Commissioner. Work is no wild-eyed radical. He’s a former corporate lawyer and sometime World Bank employee, for heaven’s sake!
He was appointed by the Conservatives, but he obviously takes his independence and impartiality seriously. He wrote a letter to Knight warning against changing the act to make royalty information a state secret for five years.
By overriding the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, Work explained, the proposed amendments to the Mines and Minerals Act would deprive Albertans of the right to access information about resources they own. He advised Knight that the FOIP Act provides the tools needed to protect legitimately confidential business information, which the government claims is the reason for the proposed amendment.
Work also told Knight the proposed change breaks the government’s promise of openness and accountability.
One can almost imagine the Premier mumbling in response, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome commissioner?”
No doubt the Stelmach government is still smarting from the brouhaha in October 2007 that forced it to modestly increase Alberta’s ludicrously low royalty rates. That one started with a report by another turbulent watchdog, Auditor General Fred Dunn. You’ll recall that Dunn concluded the process of collecting royalties should be more transparent and accountable to taxpayers. That controversy also prompted plenty of grumbling by the oil industry, and as everyone in Ed Stelmach’s Alberta knows, when Big Oil ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!
The defences put forward by members of Stelmach’s caucus are laughable. Here’s Doug Horner, MLA for Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert: “Industry needs to have certainty so they’ll be comfortable giving us the information that we need.”
Excuse me? And they’ll do what if they feel uncomfortable? Refuse to pay their taxes? Gee, I wonder if this deal is available to those of us uncomfortable with the things we have to tell Revenue Canada?
St. Albert MLA Ken Allred, God bless him, was quoted in the local media saying he hadn’t read the legislation but was sure there’s a good reason for it. Just a thought, but maybe he should give it a read before he votes!
The energy companies, not surprisingly, are all for it. Indeed, from their perspective, the less known by the owners of the resources they profit from, the better.
In light of the government’s discomfort last year with revelations about its inadequate royalty regime, and in the absence of a clear explanation of why this legislation is good for Albertans, it’s not unreasonable for taxpayers to conclude that there is in fact a bad reason for the amendment.
At any rate, slamming the lid on information about royalty calculations, not to mention taking away the right to ask, suggests this government intends to keep us from getting our fair share of the resources we own.
Frank Work urged the government to reconsider this gag law. The Opposition has promised to introduce amendments eliminating the provision.
Let’s hope the government sees the light and remembers that justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.