Pray for Alberta’s Mar-tyr to probity

When Alison Redford suspended Gary Mar as head of the Alberta Hong Kong Office and summoned him home last week, it looked a little like a settling of scores between the premier and the man she narrowly edged out in October’s PC leadership battle. Mar had enjoyed the support of a crushing majority of the PC caucus, amidst whose ranks Redford found exactly one (1) backer not named Alison Redford. Giving Mar the Hong Kong job looked like a graceful and generously-compensated way of ushering him out of the drama of Alberta politics. And when he presented a pretext for genuine retaliation, she was not slow to seize upon it.

Except I have a question: what exactly was the pretext?

No one seems quite sure, or at least no one has presented an account that convinces me. Graham Thomson’s piece for today’s Edmonton Journal is the best I’ve seen on l’Affaire Mar, and here’s how he puts it.

On Tuesday, John Chomiak said Redford made a “stupid move” by suspending Gary Mar as Alberta’s envoy based in Hong Kong. Chomiak is not just a fan of Mar; he was finance chairman for Mar’s unsuccessful leadership campaign last year, the campaign that spent a whopping $2.7 million and ended up with a $260,000 debt.

To help pay off that debt, Chomiak organized a $400-a-plate fundraiser for Mar at the Edmonton Petroleum Club on March 1. The fundraiser itself wasn’t a problem. As a private citizen, Mar is free to raise money to pay off his campaign debt. A potential problem arose when invitations publicizing the event referred to Mar’s status as Alberta’s envoy to China, leaving open the possible inference that Mar was improperly using his government position to raise money for his own financial benefit.

It’s a possible inference all right, but I have some difficulty with that preposition: “Alberta’s envoy to China”. Mar’s job, or at least his main job, is to represent Alberta interests and businesses in China. So was it really so improper for him to come home and talk about China in Alberta for personal gain? Yes, yes, if he were selling access as opposed to just a speech, that’s one thing. Ed Stelmach rightly got in trouble after his successful 2006 leadership campaign when he held rubber-chicken Premier’s Dinners to defray outstanding debt from several candidates including himself; the events originally offered face time in exchange for especially generous donations. But when Stelmach called off the Champagne Room schtick and kept on holding the dinners, nobody complained much.

And Redford has done this herself to raise money for her party, which is ethically equivalent to taking the money herself. In fact, she has left much more of an impression of selling access than Mar did: the PCs openly offered “the opportunity to interact with [the] Premier” in exchange for cash. So why is Mar in trouble?

To make things even crazier, it’s Mar’s campaign debt, and not so much the means of settling it, that would ordinarily be the chief concern here. Candidates for federal party leaderships are encouraged to zero out their campaign budgets quickly so that they won’t be beholden to financial influencers. Redford seems to be discouraging Mar from raising the cash he needs, in a way that is more or less on the up-and-up; if he’s denied the opportunity, it is almost difficult to see what alternative he would have, short of quitting his massively lucrative job and finding an even more massively lucrative one, to taking cash under the table. And like that would be difficult for him? In China?

It is possible there is still a missing element to this story. Mar, for example, may have been caught using his speech to promote businesses he had interests in: it wouldn’t be the first time an Alberta Conservative had pulled that trick! But as things stand now, Redford’s treatment of Mar smacks of counterproductive haste and, indeed, panic. She acted within “minutes” of hearing about Mar’s supposed misdeed, Thomson reports: that leaves us wondering why she has let the mass illegal-donations scandal fester for months without much response, why she admitted apparent perpetrators to the inner cabinet, and why she engaged in the “Premier’s Dinner” behaviour she doesn’t appear to like in others. I’m sure it will all become clear in due course.