Alberta Opposition Leader Rachel Notley says if her NDP was to win the spring election, it would scrap a COVID-19 review panel led by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning.
Notley says Premier Danielle Smith should be focused on helping Alberta families struggling with inflation rather than paying Manning $253,000.
“We will not continue that panel and we will do everything we can to negate what is an outrageously unjustified level of compensation (to Manning),” Notley told reporters Tuesday.
“(Manning) brings no objectivity (and) no scientific expertise to the job of assessing and evaluating this issue,” she added.
“This is an exceptionally expensive throw to Danielle Smith’s extreme base at the expense of Alberta taxpayers at a time when folks need her to be focused on their cost of living and their health-care system.”
The Alberta general election is set for May 29.
Smith announced the panel in a statement last week, setting the budget at $2 million. Manning is to pick the other panel members subject to approval by the United Conservative Party premier, take feedback virtually from experts and the public, then issue a final report and recommendations by Nov. 15.
The panel’s online portal is active. Those who sign on are invited to respond to one question: “What, if any, amendments to legislation should be made to better equip the province to cope with future public health emergencies?”
Smith responded to concerns about Manning’s appointment while speaking Saturday to listeners on her Corus call-in radio show.
She said she chose Manning in part because he was working on organizing a broader citizen-led probe into the federal government’s COVID-19 response, titled the National Citizens Inquiry.
She also said she wanted someone with a high profile to lead what she promised would be a forward-looking document to address future public health crises.
“You need someone who has stature so that there’s credibility to the process, and Preston had already indicated that he wanted to do this at the national level,” Smith said on the radio show.
Asked about Manning’s remuneration, Smith said it was for almost a year’s work.
“When you ask someone who is a high-profile person to give up everything else that they’re doing, sometimes you have to be willing to pay for it," she said.
Manning could not be immediately reached for comment. In a column published last week by Postmedia, he wrote that purpose of the panel "would not be to review or rehash the entire gamut of the Alberta government's response to COVID.”
Smith’s office said Manning would be stepping aside from his role at the National Citizens Inquiry to avoid any conflict of interest.
In November, Manning announced plans for the citizen-led and funded cross-country inquiry into the effects of Canada's response to the pandemic.
In a statement at the time, Manning said federal COVID-19 restrictions “impacted the physical and mental health, civil liberties, fundamental freedoms, livelihoods, and overall social and economic well-being of all Canadians.
“The fracturing of families and communities, and the erosion of fundamental Charter rights merits a thorough and comprehensive investigation.”
In May 2022, Manning submitted to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy an essay on how such a national citizen-led COVID-19 inquiry might go.
The essay tells the story of fictional heroine Leah Wahlstrom harnessing latent public anger over COVID-19 measures culminating in a national inquiry. The inquiry determines the federal government grossly mismanaged its handling of the pandemic, cynically sowing fear to get Canadians to comply while failing to safeguard their Charter rights.
Law professor Lorian Hardcastle, who specializes in health policy, said there are lessons to be learned, but Alberta’s inquiry needs to be led by someone perceived as neutral.
“Instead, they appoint someone who is really vocal about his opposition to public health measures and someone who doesn’t have particular expertise in public health issues,” said Hardcastle, with the University of Calgary.
“It’s a farce. It’s a waste of public money.”
Political scientist Lori Williams with Mount Royal University in Calgary said inquiries are usually led run by judges, who are perceived as willing to examine and weigh evidence from multiple perspectives in an unbiased fashion.
“Everyone has experienced some kind of harm from COVID, but (Manning) is not looking at the harms of COVID. He’s looking at the harms of COVID restrictions,” said Williams.
“This is a recipe for confirmation bias.”