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.

Pray for Alberta’s Mar-tyr to probity

  1. Cosh I read your tweets about Mar a few days ago and I thought of Guanxi issues. Many Canadians and Americans are forced to do things in China, and other countries, that would be entirely corrupt here in North America. 

    “Guanxi, literally meaning “connections,” refers to the cultivation of personal relationships with a material gain in mind. In a business context, guanxi can take place between a firm manager and a government official whose decisions can have an impact on the firm. Business associates may also rely on guanxi, using their personal relationship to ensure that mutual obligations are met, a common occurrence in developing countries with legal systems that do not reliably enforce contracts. 

    The strongest forms of guanxi develop between classmates, blood relations, and people from the same city or province when they are living in other parts of China. Foreigners can and do resort to gifts and other favors to create a sense of obligation on the part of the receiving party, but even under the best of circumstances they can never compete with these strong forms of guanxi.”

    • Gary Mar isn’t an official in the Chinese government. He works for the Alberta government.

      It certainly shouldn’t be necessary to cultivate guanxi to a point that’s unethical in Canada, for him to work with Albertans that he should be working with as part of his job.

      Though I’m not sure if that’s what happening, I certainly wouldn’t conflate this with Chinese business practices.

  2. As the story states, the fundraiser was to cover Mar’s personal debts. The man is a public servant. To auction off a trip to visit him in Hong Kong, with all of the proceeds going directly to him, is unethical and inappropriate.


  3. And Redford has done this herself to raise money for her party, which is ethically equivalent to taking the money herself.”

    It isn’t, although I think I see what you mean; that in terms of whether or not influence is being sold, it doesn’t matter where the funds end up, only that a quid pro quo exists.

    • Well, yeah. One’s individual electoral cause/greasy-pole climbing counts as a personal interest here, so it actually is ethically equivalent. If anything, probably worse.

  4. Actually, the “rubber chicken dinners for Stelmach” you refer to in 2006 were to pay off the debts of four candidates (Stelmach, Norris, Hancock, Oberg) collectively.  And there was no champagne reception; it was planned by fundraisers while Stelmach was out of the country, and cancelled by him when he found out about it on his return (albeit when it had already been advertised and this Stelmach got tarred by it).

    Your piece creates the impression that the money raised was only for him (it wasn’t) and that some special reception happened (it didn’t).

    • I’ve rejigged that bit so that it’s less misleading. (Though it’s not relevant to the ethics that he was also raising money for other leadership campaigns. It wouldn’t be relevant even if he were ONLY raising money for other leadership campaigns.)

  5. I think you nailed it with this post, though there’s a couple of points I’d add on both sides of the rift:

    A point against the Mar-tian side of things – according to the fundraiser organizer, the fundraising dinner wasn’t held to raise $260,000 – it was held to raise $60,000, which, according to said organizer, is the “personal money that Mar and his wife, Nancy, put toward paying off debt from the leadership race”

    http://www.edmontonjournal.com/business/Premier+made+stupid+move+fundraiser+chief+says/6298617/story.html 

    $60K debt on a salary of $270K+/year and he needs a fundraiser?  I’m sure that’s less than Mar spends every few years on his favoured mode of transport (he showed up in BMW print ads in the early 90s).  That’s sure going to resonate with the average voter trying to cover debts 3 or 5 or 10 times higher on half or one third the salary.  If Mar hangs over this, he can blame himself for supplying the rope.

    A point against the REDford side of things – as Thompson points out, the problem with Mar fundraising in his new capacity is the inference he was using his government position for personal gain.  This is presumptive basis for REDford’s suspension of his office.  If, in fact, this is Mar’s sin – perhaps REDford could elaborate on how someone, part of whose job description it is to appear in front thousands of persons to personally and passionately and enthusiastically proclaim the virtues of Alberta can EVER avoid creating an inference that he might also gain personally by such appearances.  If REDford truly thinks it’s possible to draw a line in the sand between advertent and inadvertent personal benefit when performing such duties, such that she can bring the hammer down on the former but ignore the latter, she’ll need more than a theatre group to explain the distinction:

    http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/12/13/on-drafting-a-constitution-dealing-with-afghan-warlords-and-why-alberta-needs-china/ 

  6. Ms. Redford made a big misstep with the healthcare inquiry by limiting it queue-jumping rather than taking on the real issues like physcian intimidation related to patient advocacy.  Now she wants to show that her government is tough on unethical behavior of any kind.  It is ridiculous.  She should announce new and more far-reaching parameters for the the healthcare inquiry.

  7. I clicked on your: it wouldn’t be the first time an Albertan Conservative had pull that trick” in the last paragraph. It is truly shocking the amount of corruption that is not just oozing out of this government faster than a zit on a teenagers face, the corruption of the Alberta Government comes “BARFING” out of them every time they open their mouths. Sick and disgusting that all of these Alberta Progressive Conservative Association members of the Legislature and their close confidantes, friends, families and any other nefarious cronies they happen to have been associated with are all so dirty, corrupt and flying under the Justice Departments radar!
    What I find most disturbing is that our present day Premier, Alison Redford’s last Government position was as the Minister of Justice. Her being Minster of Justice in of itself seems completely innocent on the surface, unless you are mired in a battle with what is widely accepted as the super corrupt Alberta Government. A injured worker Penny Caron was battling the WCB here in Alberta for a disabling injury. Her husband Rick who had taken over his wife’s case because the lawyers they had hired were going nowhere fast, except through their bank account. He had uncovered undeniable evidence of corruption within the Workers Compensation Board’s Appeal Commission and took all of this evidence he had acquired to the Justice Ministers Office in Edmonton. The evidence circled around the “Freedom of Information” files that are released to the applicant once they reach the final stage of Appeal, supposedly before the case is allowed to be heard before a Court of Queens bench Judge. Appellants never actually reach that stage because of a line written into the WCB act that says that the Review Board “can” refer the case to the Appeals Commission. So Appellants are stuck in an endless “revolving door” back to the corrupt Appeals Commission, which is like being thrown into a deep pit laden with Rattlesnakes! The FOIP files did not match the files that the Appeals Commission had returned to Mr. Caron, and thus this was the damning evidence in his mind that someone within the Appeals Commission had deliberately altered documents within the Appeals Commission and then submitted them as originals. He took all of this evidence and dropped it on the desk of the Justice Minister. I personally seen the letter that was hand signed by Alison Redford, that stated, and I quote; “There was NO evidence”. You simply cannot grasp how deflating this revelation was to Rick and his disabled wife. That was 2 years ago. Now the Justice Minister is the Premier of our Province. I find it difficult to feel sorry for Mrs. Redford given that when she was the Justice Minister, she chose to simply “Look the other Way”, on a seriously grave matter of corruption within a division of the Law Courts purview. These actions that were perpetrated within a government institution that was given its legal powers of Dispute Resolution in lieu of the Appellants being given access to a true court of Law; are a serious assault on our “Social Contract”, and the stability of our Democracy. If all of this corruption is not stopped, I live with the fear that our AB Government has become a full-blown “Fascist” corporately run government. I applaud your article and others like the link to the Alberta Standard article that you included the link to, for exposing and letting the public see what has really been going on behind the closed doors of the Alberta Government. I am not saying that she is corrupt, but she had every opportunity to uphold the Laws of the land as the holder of the highest office of the Judiciary in Alberta, and she chose not to. I will let you do the math.

  8. Maybe Red Ali was getting the last dig against her true enemies before she rides off into post election oblivion.  Wonder how she’ll do as leader of the opposition?

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