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Former justice Frank Iacobucci's recommendation proves one thing: Alison Redford haunts us still

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Frank Iacobucci

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It's unlikely Alison Redford is guilty of anything worse than being a spectacularly incompetent politician, but that Tobaccogate thing sure looks terrible.

Alas for almost everyone involved except the media and the Wildrose Party, who are still having plenty of fun with it, the 2012 Tobaccogate affair just won't go away.

Yesterday, retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci tossed the whole mess back into the lap of Alberta's New Democratic government, which had presumably hoped he would come up with something that would let them off the hook of having to make a politically risky decision.

The NDP had asked Iacobucci to conduct an independent review of the 2013 ruling by former Alberta ethics commissioner Neil Wilkinson that exonerated the former Progressive Conservative premier for her role in choosing a legal consortium to handle the province's lawsuit against Big Tobacco that happened to include her ex-husband's law firm. Redford was still the premier when Wilkinson put his conclusions on paper.

If Iacobucci had said Wilkinson got it right, that would have been OK from the NDP's perspective. According to the CBC, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley has made it clear she doesn't want to change the consortium chosen in 2012 to conduct the province's lawsuit against the tobacco industry, which at this point would be expensive and difficult to do.

If Iacobucci had said Wilkinson got it wrong, that might have given the NDP more options of dealing with the consortium, cost notwithstanding, not to mention Redford herself, whose conduct the Wildrose Opposition has argued should be investigated by the RCMP.

Instead, the retired judge said Wilkinson didn't see all the pieces of evidence he needed to, and recommended handing the mess to the new ethics commissioner, Marguerite Trussler, to decide if there ought to be another investigation.

"The information that was not available to the ethics commissioner raises questions that bear on the subject matter," Iacobucci explained.

That kind of puts the NDP between a rock and a hard place, politically speaking. If they say yes to a new investigation or ask the Mounties to look into Redford's conduct, they'll be accused by PCs of conducting a politically motivated witch-hunt against Redford and wasting taxpayers' money to boot. If they say no, they'll infuriate the already intemperate Wildrose Opposition, not to mention many of their own supporters and potential supporters, handing the Wildrosers a nice wedge issue.

It's said here it's not really the way the legal consortium that included the former premier’s Ex's law firm was chosen to handle the province's Big Tobacco lawsuit that's now the problem.

As Ricardo Acuña, the impeccably progressive executive director of the Parkland Institute, asked and answered back in December 2012 after the story was broken by the CBC's Edmonton investigative reporters: "Is this the biggest scandal ever to hit Alberta, or even a scandal at all? Absolutely not."

Redford may have shot herself in both feet the way she responded to the CBC's scoop, Acuña explained, but the facts hardly warrant a label of scandal. After all, an independent panel had identified the consortium Redford Ex Robert Hawkes's firm was involved in, the province’s conflict laws don't mention ex-spouses, and Redford had nothing to do with the negotiations, when she was premier or after.

What's more, as Acuña explained with a little input from a well-informed blogger, the Wildrose Opposition had its own reasons for wanting the circumstances to be perceived as scandalous. Acuña argued those reasons may have included the former Wildrose leader's long and cozy association "with people and organizations that shill for the tobacco industry."

And while Danielle Smith may have left the Wildrose leader's job under a little dark raincloud of her own, there are others in the current Wildrose caucus who have similar connections and almost certainly have similar motives.

Dragging this out helps the cynical Wildrose narrative correctly identified by Acuña back in 2012 that all politicians are untrustworthy, corrupt and self-interested, thereby driving a wedge between citizens and their government and striking a blow for the privatization of everything.

Unfortunately, the size of that lawsuit -- $10-billion -- and therefore the potentially huge payout to Tobacco Recovery Lawyers Consortium for winning it means this will never pass the sniff test with a lot of ordinary Albertans.

You just can't have a potential payout to your legal consultants of a size not unadjacent to a $1-billion without the process of choosing those consultants having not only to be absolutely impeccable, but appearing to be absolutely impeccable.

As Iacobucci wrote in his 27-page report released yesterday:

"[m]embers of the public will continue to harbour doubts about the propriety of the selection of external counsel to conduct the tobacco litigation, and this may lead to an erosion of confidence in the administration of government in the province more generally."

That's certainly true, even if he didn't really help the NDP very much with their political problem.

Redford was driven out of office by her own caucus in 2014 and resigned her Calgary Elbow seat in the Legislature less than six months later. Her conduct in office was without question among the key reasons for the NDP's unexpected majority victory in may 2015.

Nevertheless, she haunts us still -- and not just the dynastic governing party she brought low, and possibly destroyed.

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

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