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In Jason Kenney's 2019 campaign for premier, he promised to 'stand up for Alberta.' Ergo, the recent referendum on whether equalization payments should be eliminated from the Constitution of Canada.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

There was, Jason Kenney said, a conspiracy against Alberta. Clandestine foreign money aimed to destroy the oil industry, and he was going to prove it.

In his 2019 campaign for premier, he promised to “stand up for Alberta.” His platform described a “complex international effort to stymie the oil industry.” Foreign interference, it claimed, was “deep and pervasive.” Mr. Kenney once likened it to a John le Carré novel. After winning the election, he launched his “anti-Alberta” public inquiry that July to root out “foreign special interests secretively spending” to thwart the province’s economy.

The public inquiry was conducted without public hearings, and its final report, which landed last week, more than a year overdue, discovered none of what it set out to find. It found no “suggestions of wrongdoing” or “anything illegal.” It said climate activists had merely “exercised their rights of free speech,” and that does not constitute “conduct that should in any way be impugned.”

It also failed to find the El Dorado of cloaked foreign cash. Between 2003 and 2019, the report says that $1.3-billion worth of non-Canadian money went to any and all Canadian and non-Canadian environmental charities, for activities in some way related to Canada. Much of the money went to causes that had nothing to do with Alberta or oil. According to data in the report from Deloitte Forensic, spending that directly or indirectly opposed resource development in Alberta totalled just $59-million over 16 years.

Of that, only $17-million was spent in Canada – barely $1-million a year.

Mr. Kenney was nowhere to be seen last week when these conclusions were released. His absence is its own verdict. Yet the United Conservative Party caucus still claimed the report found that $1.3-billion had been spent to “harm” Alberta. A UCP minister said more than a billion dollars had gone to trying to shut down the oil industry. That’s simply not true.

Mr. Kenney, who was not born yesterday, has to have known that the inquiry was never going to uncover his promised trove of smoking guns. There was no le Carré spy thriller.

The Premier could have safely kept his conspiracy talk to a vague punchline or two in his stump speeches: We’re under attack; I’m standing up for Alberta. Instead, he created a high-profile investigation to dig deep into implausible claims. Holding the weakest possible hand, he upped the bet. Maybe he wants to take a shot at debunking the moon landing next.

What was “discovered” is what everyone can see – an array of opinions. And yes, a lot of them are critics of fossil fuels. Many of the most important critics are not on the barricades but in the boardrooms: The stewards of trillions of dollars held by pension funds and other asset managers, along with the management of the world’s largest companies. As the planet tries to grapple with climate change, Mr. Kenney tried to characterize it all as a conspiracy against one province.

The inquiry ends as a farce, but it was a dangerous exercise of state power. Mr. Kenney used the powers of government to go after political opponents.

As for the rest of the Premier’s fight-fight-fight strategy, more results arrived on Tuesday. Mr. Kenney had called a referendum to ask Albertans whether equalization should be yanked from the Constitution, something Alberta has no power to do. The democratic pantomime garnered 61.7 per cent voting “yes,” but turnout was just 39 per cent. Mr. Kenney had talked about gaining leverage; what he got was a middling yes from a minority of voters. Ottawa can and should ignore it.

The past few months have brought a series of embarrassments for Mr. Kenney’s government. Each salvo ricochets back at the shooter. The self-inflicted wounds pile up. To criticize these strategic failings is not to oppose the Alberta oil industry or cheer its demise. One can be in favour of a strong and continuing oil business – through an industry that is cleaner and therefore better positioned to compete in the challenging years ahead – while also seeing that Mr. Kenney’s approach has been wholly misguided.

For more than two years as Premier, Mr. Kenney has fought yesterday’s fights, losing ground all the way. Pressure on the oil industry will only increase as the climate crisis worsens. The urgency to make our energy supply cleaner will only grow.

That is no conspiracy. It is reality, and it’s not going away.

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