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New Year's Twitter attacks on fact-checking economists suggest UCP will make 2018 Year of the Big Chill

University of Alberta economist and professor Andrew Leach. (Photo: David Climenhaga)

New Year's in Alberta blew in on a bitter winter wind.

That was the weather. However, if the United Conservative Party has its way, it looks as if 2018 will be the year of The Big Chill -- as in the chilling effect of intimidation on free expression.

That's sure what it sounded like UCP supporters had in mind when they went after a couple of high-profile Alberta academic economists, Andrew Leach and Trevor Tombe, for daring to challenge UCP Leader Jason Kenney's penchant for making up facts to bolster his arguments.

A typical example: Kenney's tweeted claim Friday that Alberta has gone through "two years of population decline" as a result of the NDP government's policies. As Leach pointed out in a tweet of his own, nothing of the sort has happened. He cheekily asked: "Which two years, Jason?"

But if intimidation was the goal of the onslaught of personal attacks by the UCP's Online Rage Machine on Dr. Leach of the University of Alberta and Dr. Tombe of the University of Calgary, it may have been a tactical error.

This could be said in particular about the extended New Year's Eve Twitter rant by Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Richard Gotfried, elected as a Progressive Conservative and now a member of the UCP Caucus, who made what sounded very much like veiled accusations of improper activities against Leach.

After all, Gotfried and the rest of the Rage Machine were taking on two PhD economists who enjoy widespread respect on both sides of the debate over how best to manage Alberta's economy, and who both know how to forcefully and effectively stand up for themselves on social media.

"Happy to have a calm and rational discussion," Tombe tweeted back to one critic, sounding only momentarily plaintive. "But please focus on what I actually said instead of making up stuff and calling it drivel."

Leach was brisk in his responses to MLA Gotfried's bizarre demand that he produce a list of all his sources of income in addition to private tax information. The implication was obvious to all readers: that Gotfried thought Leach had not disclosed some sources of income.

Leach pointed the cranky MLA to his personal disclosure information, which is published online in accordance with the U of A's conflict of interest policies.

Gotfried responded by repeating his dark hints, and making them more specific: "… Put a transparent $ amount to this for 2016 and YTD 2017, so there are no surprises, and then Albertans can form their own opinions around your objectivity. Please include any other non-academic, 3rd party income such as Pembina, Greenpeace, Tides, Rockefeller or others."

Leach's disclosure document shows he chaired the NDP's climate leadership panel in 2015 and 2016, which doubtless infuriates the UCP, and chairs a research centre that has received funds from several major energy industry corporations. It lists all relevant paid and unpaid activities for the previous eight years.

Gotfried's retort claimed (for the second time in this exchange) he was siccing his "research and FOIP team" on the professor's personal finances. As Leach tweeted in response: "Your tax dollars hard at work #ableg."

This continued at some length. Some of the tweets were later removed by Gotfried (although, of course, screenshots of everything exist in numerous places) and some were not.

This is alarming. As blogger Susan Wright observed in a New Year's Eve blog post, Gotfried's threat to turn his research staff loose on Leach is an abuse of process and his unsavoury implications "a new low even for the UCP."

The general uproar strongly suggests Kenney's pious vow to "raise the bar" of political decorum in the province is insincere. Well, in fairness, he was only speaking about doing this inside the legislature. More seriously, it indicates that threatening and defaming credible critics who challenge the UCP leader's made-up facts will become standard operating procedure for the party. No surprise, there, of course. We've already seen them in action, and the tactics are pulled right out of the UCP's well-thumbed copy of the Republican Party playbook.

"This is a longstanding fact of life for me," Leach observed in an email conversation. "I've had similar accusations since I started doing public engagement as an academic. It used to be, I was a bought-and-paid-for shill for Big Oil. Now, it's the NDP."

"This, though, is the first time it's been carried so far by an elected official," he added, noting that the exchange with Gotfried mirrored "almost perfectly" an attack by the publisher of a notorious Canadian alt-right publication more than a year ago.

"What disturbs me most is the chill that interactions like these have to put on my junior colleagues who might have lots to contribute to public policy," Leach said.

"If you know that this is what you'll face, aren't you more likely to stay in the ivory tower?" He concluded with the observation he won't "take accusations of corruption, veiled or otherwise, lightly."

Unfortunately, he and others who criticize the UCP's light-on-accuracy approach to political discourse will likely experience a lot more of the same in 2018 and beyond.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo credit: David Climenhaga

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