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Oilpatch funds balloon for pro-Smith political group after she supports royalty break – BNN Bloomberg

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Oilpatch support for Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s agenda ballooned after she won her party’s leadership and put the so-called RStar program — a plan to give tax breaks to energy companies for fulfilling cleanup work they are already obliged to do — high on the government agenda. 

Elections Alberta records and an analysis by The Canadian Press suggest donations to the Alberta First Initiative, a pro-Smith advocacy group, increased eightfold from companies associated with the energy industry after Smith became premier. While the Initiative says it does not support RStar, its founder previously worked with a group that promoted it. 

The Initiative also appears to have participated in Smith’s successful campaign to win the United Conservative Party leadership, which she sought after leaving Alberta Enterprise Group, a business group that lobbied in favour of RStar. The Initiative is now funding attack ads against the New Democrat Opposition and supporting Smith as the province gears up for a spring election.

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“Alberta, we can’t afford the NDP,” says one of the ads on the Initiative’s website.

“Danielle Smith will make Alberta better for me and my family,” says another.

It’s an index of how close the governing party is to the province’s dominant industry — a relationship that also carries risks, said University of Alberta political science professor Jared Wesley. 

“Entitlement is kind of the Conservatives’ kryptonite in Alberta,” he said. 

“To the extent that oil and gas gets seen as putting their finger on the scale in this election, the UCP runs the risk of losing votes.” 

The founder of Alberta First said the group is exercising its rights.

“(Alberta First) has a mission to promote policies, educate activists and engage Albertans to participate in democracy,” Mackenzie Lee said in an emailed response to a series of questions from The Canadian Press.

The RStar proposal, developed by an industry group, has been criticized by legal experts, energy economists and some of the province’s own internal analysts. It’s been called a violation of the polluter pay principle, an incentive for companies to not fulfil their obligations and a reward for those who haven’t.

For more than a year, Smith and her cabinet have been outspoken advocates of the plan, which would enable companies to use reclamation spending to gain credits against future royalty payments, despite that reclamation being a condition of their original drilling licence.

“I love it,” Smith said on a 2021 YouTube broadcast, when she was a lobbyist for the Alberta Enterprise Group. She also wrote a supportive letter that July as group president to then-energy minister Sonya Savage.

On May 19, 2022, Smith announced she would leave her job as president of the Alberta Enterprise Group and run for the UCP leadership. The Alberta First Initiative was incorporated six days later, timing Lee called “coincidental.”   

Lee is also the co-founder with Kris Kinnear of Sustaining Alberta’s Energy Network, which has long pushed RStar. 

Lee said he left the Network in late 2021 and hasn’t spoken regularly with Kinnear since last spring. The Initiative does not promote RStar, he said.

“RStar is not a policy that Alberta First has ever or will ever advocate,” he said. 

However, the Initiative supports Smith and Smith supports RStar.

Elections Alberta public reports show the Initiative received donations of $37,500 in the third quarter of 2022, which would have arrived during Smith’s UCP leadership campaign. An analysis by The Canadian Press using public websites as well as corporate records searched  by the NDP suggest about two-thirds of that came from energy sector firms or firms providing services to them. 

Text messages sent by someone saying they represent the Initiative, captured by the NDP, suggest the group was active in Smith’s campaign.

“Hi! This is Ann from Alberta First Initiative,” reads one Aug. 12 text. “Alberta has a rare opportunity to select a premier who will put Alberta First. Only Danielle Smith has shown a willingness to stand up to Ottawa.” 

“Alberta First!” was one of Smith’s campaign slogans. Kinnear’s LinkedIn profile also lists him as Smith’s campaign co-ordinator.

Lee said the Initiative’s work during that campaign was limited to general policy surveys “that had nothing to do with any candidate running at the time.”

Smith became premier on Oct. 11 and soon after wrote RStar into the job description of her first energy minister. 

Oilpatch donations subsequently poured in to the Initiative. 

Compared to the $37,500 the Initiative received in July through September of last year, Elections Alberta records show the group picked up $330,000 in the last three months of 2022. Of that, $200,000 was from energy companies or those providing services to them. 

Maximum allowable donations to third-party groups such as the Initiative are almost seven times higher than limits for political parties or leadership contests. As well, corporations are allowed to donate.

Nearly one-third of the Initiative’s donations were for the $30,000 maximum. No donation was smaller than $5,000. 

Smith’s office did not answer a request for comment. 

Lee said no UCP officials are involved with the Initiative, nor does he meet with government staff.

The Initiative may now be the wealthiest of registered third-party groups opposing the NDP.

Elections Alberta says the next wealthiest groups at the end of 2022 were Shaping Alberta’s Future, which collected just over $224,000, Alberta Proud with almost $29,000 and Take Back Alberta with $22,300.

Meanwhile, Kinnear works in Smith’s office with unspecified duties. And Energy Minister Peter Guthrie has announced a pilot program based on RStar called the Liability Management Incentive Program that would distribute $100 million in royalty credits.

Smith has said the program is needed to clean up wells left by companies that no longer exist.

Scotiabank recently concluded the four companies best placed to take advantage of the program were Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus, Paramount Resources and Whitecap Resources. Those companies reported about $5 billion in net income in the last quarter. 

“We also believe the program goes against the core capitalist principle that private companies should take full responsibility for the liabilities they willingly accept,” Scotiabank said. 

Wesley said it’s unprecedented to have a former lobbyist such as Smith running the provincial government and installing programs she used to advocate after a campaign assisted by those who would benefit from them. He said Smith and her industry supporters may find that’s used against them in the coming election.

“These (political action committees) have to be careful of not crossing that line into being part of a narrative that there are these corporate forces at work and they’re not in it for you.”  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2023.

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Pakistan's political heavyweights take their street battles to the courts — as a weary nation looks on – CNN

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Islamabad, Pakistan
CNN
 — 

Pakistan’s leaders and the man who wants to unseat them are engaged in high stakes political brinkmanship that is taking a toll on the collective psyche of the nation’s people – and many are exhausted.

As their politicians argue, citizens struggle with soaring inflation against an uptick in militant attacks. In major cities, residents regularly navigate police roadblocks for protests, school closures and internet shutdowns. And in the northern province of Kyber Pakhtunkhua, three people died last Thursday in a stampede to get subsidized bags of flour.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government is attempting to unlock billions of dollars in emergency financing from the International Monetary Fund, a process delayed since last November – but some people aren’t prepared to wait.

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Government statistics show a surge in the number of citizens leaving Pakistan – up almost threefold in 2022 compared to previous years.

Zainab Abidi, who works in tech, left Pakistan for Dubai last August and says her “main worry” is for her family, who she “really hopes can get out.”

Others, like Fauzia Rashif, a cleaner in Islamabad, don’t have the option to leave.

“I don’t have a passport, I’ve never left the country. These days the biggest concern is the constant expenses. I worry about my children but there really isn’t anywhere to go,” she said.

Experts say the pessimism about the Pakistan’s stability in the months ahead is not misplaced, as the country’s political heavyweights tussle for power.

Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistan ambassador to the United Nations, Britain and the United States, told CNN the “prolonged and intense nature” of the confrontation between Pakistan’s government and former Prime Minister Imran Khan is “unprecedented.”

She said the only way forward is for “all sides to step aside and call for a ceasefire through interlocutors to agree on a consensus for simultaneous provincial and national elections.”

That solution, however, is not something that can easily be achieved as both sides fight in the street – and in court.

How did we get here?

The current wave of chaos can be traced back to April 2022, when Khan, a former cricket star who founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI), was ousted from office in a vote of no confidence on grounds of mismanaging the economy.

In response, Khan rallied his supporters in street protests, accusing the current government of colluding with the military and the United States in a conspiracy to remove him from office, claims both parties rejected.

Khan survived an assassination attempt last November during one of his rallies and has since been beset with legal troubles spearheaded by Sharif’s government. As of March 21, Khan was facing six charges, while 84 have been registered against other PTI workers, according to the central police office in Lahore. However, Khan’s party claims that 127 cases have been lodged against him alone.

Earlier this month, attempts to arrest Khan from his residence in Lahore led to violent clashes with the police and Khan’s supporters camped outside. Khan told CNN the government was attempting to arrest him as a “pretext for them to get out of (holding) elections,” a claim rejected by information minister Mariyam Aurangzeb.

Days later, more clashes erupted when police arrived with bulldozers to clear the supporters from Khan’s home, and again outside Islamabad High Court as the former leader finally complied with an order to attend court.

Interior minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters that the police operation intended to “clear no-go areas” and “arrest miscreants hiding inside.” Human Rights Watch accused the police of using “abusive measures” and urged all sides to show restraint.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif gives a news conference in February, 2023.

What is happening with elections?

General elections are due to be held this October, but Khan has been pushing for elections months earlier. However, it’s not even clear if he’ll be able to contest the vote due to the push by the government to disqualify him.

Disqualification will mean that Khan can’t hold any parliamentary position, become involved in election campaigns, or lead his party.

Khan has already been disqualified by Pakistan’s Election Commission for making “false statements” regarding the sale of gifts sent to him while in office – an offense under the country’s constitution – but it will take the courts to cement the disqualification into law. A court date is still to be set for that hearing.

Yasser Kureshi, author of the book “Seeking Supremacy: The Pursuit of Judicial Power in Pakistan,” says Khan’s “ability to mobilize support” will “help raise the costs of any attempt to disqualify him.”

However, he said if Pakistan’s powerful military – led by government-appointed former spy chief Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir, who Khan once fired – is determined to expel the former leader, it could pressure the judiciary to rule him out, no matter how much it inflames Khan’s supporters.

Pakistan army Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir attends a ceremony in Islamabad, on  November 1, 2022.

“If the military leadership is united against Khan and committed to disqualifying and purging him, the pressure from the military may compel enough judges to relent and disqualify Khan, should that be the consensus within the military top brass,” said Kureshi, a lecturer in South Asian Studies at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Qaiser Imam, president of the Islamabad Bar Association, disagreed with this statement. “Political parties, to save their politics, link themselves with certain narratives or perceptions which generally are never found correct,” he told CNN.

The Pakistan Armed Forces has often been blamed for meddling in the democratic process to maintain its authority, but in a statement last November outgoing army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, said a decision had been made in February that the military would not interfere in politics.

The army has previously rejected Khan’s claims it had anything to do with purported attempts on his life.

Legal maneuvers

Some say the government’s recent actions have added to perceptions that it’s trying to stack the legal cards against Khan.

This week, the government introduced a bill to limit the power of the Chief Justice, who had agreed to hear a claim by the PTI against a move to delay an important by-election in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populated province, and one considered a marker for the party most likely to win national leadership.

It had been due to be held on April 30, but Pakistan’s Election Commission pushed it to October 8, citing security concerns.

In a briefing to international media last Friday, Pakistan’s Defense Minister Khawaja Asif said the security and economic situation had deteriorated in the past two months, and it was more cost effective to hold the vote at the same time as the general election.

The decision was immediately condemned by Khan as an act that “violated the constitution.”

Lodhi, the former ambassador, has criticized the delay, tweeting that a security threat had been “invoked to justify whatever is politically expedient.”

The PTI took the matter to the Supreme Court, where it’s still being heard.

Some have accused Khan of also trying to manipulate the court system in his favor.

Kureshi said the judiciary is fragmented, allowing Khan to “venue-shop” – taking charges against him from one judge to seek a more sympathetic hearing with another.

“At this time it seems that even the Supreme Court itself is split on how to deal with Imran Khan, which helps him maneuver within this fragmented institutional landscape,” Kureshi said.

Supporters of Imran Khan chant slogans as they protest in Lahore,  Pakistan, March 14.

What happens now?

The increasing acrimony at the highest level of politics shows no sign of ending – and in fact could prolong the uncertainty for Pakistan’s long-suffering people.

Khan is adamant the current government wants him dead without offering much tangible evidence. And in comments made to local media on Sunday, Sanaullah said the government once viewed Khan as a political opponent but now sees him as the “enemy.”

“(Khan) has in a straightforward way brought this country’s politics to a point where either only one can exist, either him or us. If we feel our existence is being negated, then we will go to whatever lengths needed and, in that situation, we will not see what is democratic or undemocratic, what is right and what is wrong,” he added.

PTI spokesman Fawad Chaudhry said the comments were “offensive” and threatened to take legal action. “The statement … goes against all norms of civilized world,” he said.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the director the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, says Khan’s popularity gave him “the power to cripple the country,” should he push supporters to show their anger in the street.

However, Mehboob said Khan’s repeated attempts to call for an early election could create even more instability by provoking the government to impose article 232 of the constitution.

That would place the country under a state of emergency, delaying elections for a year.

And that would not be welcomed by a weary public already tired of living in uncertain times.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the former army chief.

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Han Dong takes step towards suing Global News for libel – CTV News

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Lawyers representing Toronto MP Han Dong served Global News and several of its journalists with a libel notice over reporting alleging he spoke to a Chinese diplomat in February 2021 about delaying the release of the two Michaels who were detained in China at the time, and that he was a ‘witting affiliate’ of Chinese interference networks.

Dong tweeted a press release from his legal team announcing that the libel notice had been served Friday evening.

“We demanded that Global News issue a full apology and retraction of the false, malicious, irresponsible, and defamatory statements that Global News has published and broadcast about Mr. Dong,” the release from Polley Faith LLP reads.

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Representatives from Global News told CTVNews.ca the network is “unable to provide comment” but referred back to a statement issued earlier this week saying: “Global News is governed by a rigorous set of Journalistic Principles and Practices. We are very mindful of the public interest and legal responsibility of this important accountability reporting.”

The libel notice comes after Global News published a story on March 23 alleging Han Dong told the Chinese consul general to Toronto that keeping Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in prison would be politically damaging to the opposition Conservatives—an allegation Dong vehemently denies.

Last month, Global News also reported Dong was preferred by Beijing over another Chinese Canadian Liberal, and that he was a “witting affiliate” of Chinese interference networks.

The network attributed the information to unnamed national security officials. CTV News has not verified the allegations.

Under Ontario’s defamation law, the first step in a claim requires Dong to send the notice to the media outlet before filing a lawsuit seeking damages.

“Mr. Dong intends to bring a libel action against Global News and the people responsible for these publications to address these wrongs and clear his name,” Polley Faith LLP says.

In the notice of libel, Dong’s lawyers say he objects to “defamatory articles and broadcasts concerning him, published by Global News and Corus Entertainment.”

The court document demands the articles and broadcasts be taken down from Global News’ website within seven days, as well as demands a full apology and retraction of the story.

Since the report was released, Dong has stepped down from the Liberal caucus and now sits as an Independent MP.

Dong recently voted with the opposition and against the Liberals on a motion calling for a full public inquiry into alleged foreign interference in Canadian elections. In his statement, he said he did this to show that he had “nothing to hide.”

With files from CTV National News Senior Political Correspondent Glen McGregor

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Former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole not seeking re-election, leaving federal politics this spring – CBC.ca

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Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole says that after more than a decade in politics, he will not seek re-election and plans to resign his seat this spring.

The Ontario MP led the Conservatives and served as official Opposition leader from August 2020 until February 2022, when a majority of his caucus voted to remove him from the post.

“I am a proud Conservative and had the unique privilege to lead our party amid a challenging time for our country,” he said in a statement shared on social media Friday morning.

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“The Conservative Party is the party of Confederation and I know it will return to government offering the hope and ideas our country so desperately needs.

“I will help in any way I can.”

His ousting followed months of tensions over O’Toole’s management of caucus and attempts to moderate the party’s image after two consecutive election losses. Those efforts led to claims that he flip-flopped on key policy positions, including on carbon pricing and gun control, angering the party’s base. He also struggled to satisfy many with his position on vaccine mandates.

The ultimate shove came while the protesters of the “Freedom Convoy” descended on downtown Ottawa, honking their horns and decrying COVID-19 health restrictions. Many of them used expletive-laden flags critical of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that O’Toole said in a late 2022 blog post he hoped to see fewer of going forward.

In that same post, he warned of growing polarization in Canadian politics and suggested that symbols like the anti-Trudeau flags were “slowly normalizing rage and damaging our democracy.”

He wrote at the time that Trudeau was “my political opponent, not my enemy.”

Besides taking up more writing, the MP has kept a low profile on Parliament Hill since his time as leader ended.

O’Toole reflects on over a decade in politics

In interviews he has given since, O’Toole has reflected on the difficulties of leading the party during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the face of suspected Chinese election meddling, which the party alleges targeted several Conservative-held ridings as O’Toole took a hawkish stand against the regime.

The military veteran-turned-lawyer was first elected in a 2012 byelection. He served as parliamentary secretary to the minister for international trade, then veterans affairs minister during the final year of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government before it lost power in 2015.

O’Toole took a first crack at running for the party leadership in the crowded 2017 race to replace Harper. He finished third.

He successfully ran for a second time in 2020, beating out his chief opponent, former cabinet minister Peter MacKay.

“I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to advance issues that I believe are critically important — from veterans’ mental health, to military preparedness, nuclear energy, Arctic sovereignty and a range of other important issues,” O’Toole said in Friday’s statement.

“I will continue to advance these interests and serve my constituents until the end of this session.”

Fellow Conservative MPs Scott Aitchison and Michelle Rempel Garner wished O’Toole, his wife and their two kids all the best on social media Friday, as did party president Rob Batherson.

O’Toole’s statement said he first broke the decision to his Durham constituency during a speech to a local trade board.

The upcoming seat vacancy is one of several that will need to be filled in byelections, unless a general election is called in the near future.

Last month, Candice Bergen, a longtime Manitoba MP who took over as interim leader after O’Toole, also announced she was leaving.

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