Stelmach’s $26,000 Bill 46 Ad Campaign

The Stelmach Tories have spent $26,000 of taxpayers money to convince landowners that Bill 46 will not violate landowner rights in Alberta.

Here’s an article Canadian Press:

Some are calling it a propaganda war.

The Alberta government, taken aback by reaction to a proposed law that will reshape how energy and utility projects are approved, is now pushing hard to sell its merits.

For Premier Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservatives, facing an election in 2008, the stakes are high. The loudest grumbling about Bill 46 has come from landowners in the Tory heartland of rural Alberta.

They fear the new law would strip their right to appear at hearings into various projects, including utility corridors that would dot hundreds of farms with transmission towers.

The government spent $26,000 last week on ads in 133 rural newspapers promoting the merits of the legislation, which the government is ramming through the legislature with closure motions. Landowners are fighting back with a publicity campaign of their own.

“We’re going around telling people that what the energy minister is saying and what Premier Ed Stelmach is saying does not equal what’s written in the bill,” says Joe Anglin, a Rimbey landowner who’s leading the protest.

Anglin, who has been nominated to run for the Green party in the upcoming election, has been organizing town hall meetings in Alberta’s heartland for months. He gives a convincing video presentation on how the legislation will squeeze people out of the review process for energy and utility projects. One recent gathering drew a crowd of 350.

“We’re calling it The Campaign of Truth,” said Anglin.

The new law would create two separate regulators to replace the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board – an agency that had already sparked suspicion after it was caught hiring private detectives to spy on landowners at utility hearings. After a damning report by the privacy commissioner, the board disbanded its security unit, parted ways with its head of security and accepted the resignations of three directors.

The board ended up scrapping the entire approval process for a proposed power line between Calgary and Edmonton, forcing the proponent, AltaLink, to start over. AltaLink spokesman Leigh Clarke says the new legislation strikes an appropriate balance between the rights of landowners and those of project builders.

“I think the proof will be in the pudding when we get into some new hearings,” Clarke said in an interview from Calgary.

But Anglin, one of the landowners who was spied on, says the “propaganda” campaign the government has started is going to worsen the mood in rural communities when people realize the message is not true.

“The ad says if one directly affected person requests a hearing, a hearing must be held. That’s wrong. It doesn’t say that in the legislation,” he said.

The Consumers Association of Canada is upset that funding for groups that regularly intervene in regulatory hearings may be curtailed under the new legislation.

“We think this bill should be shelved for now,” says association lawyer Jim Wachowich. “Anything they do has far-reaching consequences for not only rural landowners but also urban Albertans who pay a power bill.”

Bill 46 may also be seen as the latest credibility test for Energy Minister Mel Knight. The sometimes combative Knight was caught out after he sided with the energy regulator when news first broke of the spying scandal.

Knight’s reputation was also bruised after he said last spring that royalties were at the right level in Alberta. Internal reports dug out by the auditor general later revealed that energy ministry bureaucrats had been recommending for years that royalties should be increased by at least $1 billion a year.

Political analyst David Taras says he doubts that the premier would second-guess his energy minister before an election. But Knight’s hold on the important energy portfolio is looking less than secure.

“He’s been on the wrong side of issues,” said Taras, a professor at the University of Calgary. “Dollars to doughnuts, he’s going to be out of that portfolio (after an election).”

Knight recently put forward two dozen amendments to deal with some of the concerns raised by landowners, but says he has no intention of pulling back the legislation for further review.

“You get to the point where you’ve watered down the legislation to the point where it isn’t as functional as the legislation we have now,” he said outside the assembly.

Stelmach says the province can’t afford to delay legislation that would streamline the regulatory process to clear a backlog of project applications.

“I believe there’s something like 60,000 applications for … anything pertaining to energy and utilities,” the premier told reporters. “We know we’re going to need some transmission corridors, so now’s the best time to put the legislation in place.”

But Taras says Stelmach is taking risks by pushing through legislation that has caused several protests at the legislature, including a rally last week that drew a crowd of nearly 100 in frigid, biting winds.

“I think his gamble is that rural Alberta will not let the Stelmach government fall,” said Taras.

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