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Politics Scheer leaves himself open to claims he’s in cahoots with Big Oil

When Andrew Scheer agreed to be the keynote speaker at a closed-door event on April 11 where Conservative Party strategists spoke to oil industry executives about political campaigns, he goofed.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Maybe the federal Conservatives were getting so excited about Jason Kenney’s impending victory in Alberta’s provincial election that they were blinded to the stupid thing they were doing.

In Alberta, there was, and is, so much anger about the economy, unemployment, the glut of oil and the lack of pipelines to ship it, that Mr. Kenney’s full-throated campaign to improve the lot of the oil patch was a political no-brainer.

But when Andrew Scheer agreed to be the keynote speaker at a closed-door event on April 11 where Conservative Party strategists spoke to oil industry executives about political campaigns, he goofed.

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One reason it was a mistake is that the rest of Canada isn’t Alberta. Another is that oil-industry executives might be the least popular advocates for the oil patch. Above all, it makes it look like the Conservatives aren’t just sympathetic to the oil patch, they’re in a joint venture with oil execs.

That’s not good in a country where most dislike corporate involvement in political campaigns. And it’s not good for Mr. Scheer, who already gives full-throated backing to the oil sector, to give opponents the opportunity to argue he’s in cahoots with Big Rich Oil Inc.

And they did. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna tweeted: “Andrew Scheer has been caught scheming behind closed doors with wealthy executives to gut environmental protection laws, silence critics, and make pollution free again.”

The people around Mr. Scheer apparently realize the whole thing doesn’t look great. That’s presumably why they didn’t tell anyone about it. They’re not eager to talk about it now.

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But the details of the meeting’s agenda were reported by The Globe and Mail on Wednesday.

The event was organized by something called the Modern Miracle Network, which was set up last year by Michael Binnion, the CEO of Questerre Energy Corp., who has been involved in Conservative circles, to promote the narrative of oil and gas as a modern miracle. The attendees included several other oil execs who are board members of the organization, according to the agenda.

The event didn’t just feature Mr. Scheer as keynote speaker. The Conservative campaign manager, Hamish Marshall, spoke in a section on “the new third-party campaign model” – a reference to campaigns by organizations that are not political parties. So did Mark Spiro, a veteran Conservative organizer who helped run the ground game in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s campaigns. The agenda noted those discussions would include “network campaigns” and “campaign techniques,” like rallying the base.

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Some of the other items on the agenda included the Conservative Party lawyer, Arthur Hamilton, talking about using litigation as a tool to “get tough” on environmental NGOs and former Donald Trump aide Mike Roman talking about countering such groups through opposition research, which is the political euphemism for digging up dirt on adversaries.

Certainly that looks like Conservatives and oil-industry execs giving each other tips on political campaigning. Some of the organizations that participated, including the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, insist they are non-partisan. One participant said it was really about selling the oil sector’s narrative, rather than defeating Liberals.

Yet there was Mr. Scheer, along with Conservative campaign strategists, at a closed-door event they don’t want to talk about.

“What I think is concerning about this event is that it was done behind closed doors, it was secret, and there was very clearly, based on the reporting that I saw … an attempt to co-ordinate efforts,” Karina Gould, the Minister of Democratic Institutions, told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

Ms. Gould noted there are new laws that prohibit parties from colluding with third-party interest groups that conduct partisan political activities in the official pre-election period that begins June 30 – although she didn’t say that anyone in this case violated them.

But the real problem for Mr. Scheer is his opponents can cite it over and over again – outside Alberta.

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The problem isn’t the voters in Ontario or B.C. or Quebec who see the oil patch as big polluters to be shut rather than economic drivers. The Tories won’t get those votes, anyway.

But there are a lot of other voters in those places who might be more sympathetic to Mr. Scheer’s arguments about the oil sector’s contribution to the economy – but not if they think he’s a spokesman for oil executives. And he has helped his opponents paint that picture.

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