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Preston Manning to chair Premier Smith ordered Covid-19 panel

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith will be forming an expert panel on the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Jan. 19 announcement followed reporting by the Globe and Mail earlier in the day that former Reform Party leader, and founder of a private foundation perusing its own Covid-19 inquiry, would chair the government’s panel. The government did not indicate in their announcement that Preston Manning is currently undertaking a private inquiry into Covid-19.

A ministerial order issued by Smith, in her capacity as the President of the Executive Council for Alberta, laid out the panel’s goals in broad terms. She set a budget for the inquiry, along with setting ambitious timelines.

Only Manning is currently named to the panel, with Premier Smith having sole discretion to add additional members. The cost is expected to be $253,000 for Manning, and $2 million for the work performed.

“There are valuable lessons we learned from the Alberta government’s response to the COVID-19 public health emergency,” said Smith in a prepared statement.

“It’s important that we apply those lessons to strengthen our management of future public health crises, and the panel’s recommendations will be key in doing so.”

An interim report is expected to be delivered to Smith by the panel on June 30, with a final report being delivered on Nov. 15.

Smith’s ministerial order indicates that she also has the final say over whether a verbal report from the panel’s findings will be delivered to members of cabinet. There is no requirement in the order for any of the panel’s reports to be delivered to Albertans.

The panel could look at public health and health information, mental health and wellness, student mental health and education, the professional standards of health practitioners, the implementation of emergency measures, the protection of rights and freedoms, economic and financial effects, and employment standards.

“It’s crucial that we take the opportunity to review the province’s COVID-19 response and examine whether and how that approach can be improved in future health emergencies,” said Manning.

“I look forward to working with my fellow panelists and hearing from Albertans about how the province can best achieve this objective.”

Manning, in an opinion piece written for the Edmonton Journal, wrote that the panel would be limited to “reviewing” the Alberta statutes that informed and authorized the government’s response to COVID-19 and proposing amendments to such legislation that might better prepare the province to address future public health emergencies.

“The purpose of this panel would NOT be to review or rehash the entire gamut of the Alberta government’s response to COVID — which would be a vast and time-consuming undertaking.”

Official opposition calls panel political pandering

UCalgary political scientist Lisa Young said that it was unusual for the government to appoint only a chair to a panel and not other members.

“Typically we would see the entire panel appointed, and at that point, the government could suggest that different perspectives were represented there on the panel and that there was different expertise that was being brought to bear.”

Alberta NDP Health Critic David Shepherd called the panel a desperate call for help by the Premier for Manning to solidify her support from the “far right.”

“Over a quarter of a million dollars is a lot of Albertans’ money to hire someone to chair a committee that has obviously been struck for political gain,” he wrote in a statement.

The NDP pointed out that the government had already paid for a $475,000 report from KPMG on the pandemic response.

“So much money being wasted purely for political gain is not only an insult to healthcare workers but to all Albertans. Everyone should be outraged by this misuse of taxpayers’ dollars,” said Shepherd.

Social media users were also quick to both defend and deride the panel.

Not obvious panel will be impartial

Young said that a lot of information is still missing about the panel, and about whether the panel will prove to be impartial given Manning’s already stated positions and interests in the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The reason I say that is that he has already tried to set up an independent citizens panel, and he’s published at least one op-ed basically saying that Covid responses were damaging and violations of the Charter of Rights, which suggests that he’s not a neutral or dispassionate observer,” Young said.

“I think he’s positioned himself relative to this issue, and that he is sympathetic to the views of those who oppose mandatory vaccines, and he’s sympathetic to those who saw lockdowns or COVID restrictions is as damaging.”

Manning’s private inquiry website—National Citizens Inquiry—which makes the claim that it is “Canada’s national response to Covid-19,” only cites testimony from two individuals who have claimed to have been harmed by vaccines.

The history of Manning’s private inquiry, from the National Citizens Inquiry website, indicates it was borne from calls made at the Reclaiming Canada Conference held in 2022.

That conference hosted speakers such as James Topp, a reservist who was charged by the military with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline after speaking out against the vaccine in uniform, former Premier of Newfoundland Brian Peckford who was the lead plaintiff for a Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms Case against the federal government for travel vaccine mandates, B.C. doctor Stephen Malthouse, who was disciplined by that province’s college for spreading Covid-19 misinformation, and Daniel Bufford, a former RCMP officer who served as head of security for the Convoy protesters in Ottawa.

That conference was also attended by Manning, and People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier.

Prior to the creation of the National Citizens Inquiry, Manning released a report in May 2022 entitled “The Report of the Covid Commission” for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. That report purports to be a real account of a federal government inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic, which was then subsequently released in June of 2023.

That work questioned the use of science as the guiding principle for public health measures alongside their legitimacy, amplifying vaccine misinformation claims by referring to their use in cross-border travel restrictions as “medical apartheid,” referenced conspiracy theories about poor and racist behaviour by convoy protesters as being the work of paid agitators, and that of the media and the courts for not defending vigorously enough the views of anti-government and anti-mandate protesters.

Manning wrote in response to perceived criticism against Covid-19 inquiries, including that of his own, “encourage each of these initiatives to proceed and judge them on the evidence of what they achieve or fail to achieve, rather than on the basis of premature speculations.”

Politics likely at work

Young said that the panel is likely a way for the Premier to fulfill promises to her base that she is doing something about Covid-19 issues important to them.

“This is a way for Danielle Smith to say to some of her supporters from the leadership space, ‘look, I’m doing something about this, I’ve appointed this panel after the election, they’re going to report and then I can do great things to make sure that this never happens again.'”

For Manning’s part, said Young, the government mirroring what he has already been doing as a private citizen would likely legitimize the efforts he’s already undertaken.

“It’s sort of saying, ‘Look what Preston Manning set out to do on his own. The Government of Alberta is now going to sponsor it, at least in the province.”

She said that there are probably a wider number of Albertans who would like to see an inquiry into the province’s Covid-19 response, but also from the perspective of not doing enough to protect public health.

“I don’t think that that’s what the public is likely to get from this panel unless there are pieces of this that we haven’t seen yet,” Young said.

She said that a government panel that was carefully set up, non-political, and serious that leads to implementable recommendations would be a good thing for the province.

“It would be a real pity to not have that opportunity for the province if this is the only panel that we’re going to get,” she said.