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On the Trail of Ethical Oil's Secrets

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It was something that puzzled me about the "Ethical Oil" campaign. Until recently, that is.

The puzzle was this: why would an ambitious, smart young political staffer like Alykhan Velshi leave the side of his rising star, Jason Kenney, just when the Conservatives achieved their coveted majority government, and instead join a start-up blog where he said he wasn't paying himself a salary?

Of course, it's hard to say whether the salary stuff was true given the murkiness surrounding who is bankrolling the supposedly "grassroots" Ethical Oil initiative -- which has a big enough budget for TV ads, something that the environmental groups it attacks cannot afford.

But, now that Velshi is back in the Conservative Party fold in the plum job as director of planning at the Prime Minister's office, and after only a few months out, one could reasonably assume that his whole gambit was planned from the start.

But why?

The whole Ethical Oil idea was birthed by Ezra Levant, who longs to be Canada's Glenn Beck, trying all manner of desperate antics to attract attention to himself (such as chain-sawing a potted plant on Earth Day). Levant reluctantly stepped aside for Stephen Harper to assume the Canadian Alliance nomination in Calgary in 2002 and is billed as an "insider" with the Conservative Party.

One could dismiss Levant's Ethical Oil push as another in a long line of attention-seeking antics, but the Conservative Party picked it up in earnest when Peter Kent took over the Environment Minister portfolio early this year and began to use the language before even getting briefed by his ministry. (Evidently, Kent doesn't do briefings, since he still doesn't know what ozone is, 11 months later).

Stephen Harper himself has also used the "ethical" framing, showing that Conservative Party support for the initiative goes to the very top.

When Velshi took over Ethical Oil blog in July, the Globe and Mail provided massive free publicity to his push by publishing his series of print ad mocks baiting countries like Saudi Arabia. Ironically, Velshi misrepresented some of the ad images or failed to secure rights to them, an unethical practice that the Globe has yet to correct the record about. Canada's national newspaper also failed to dig deeper into whose interests it was helping to promote, leaving this task to the low-budget online news site, the Tyee.

Then in September, when the Saudis swallowed Velshi's bait, Jason Kenney came running, megaphone in hand. Despite being the head of an unrelated ministry, Kenney castigated Saudi Arabia when it threatened legal action over Velshi's TV ads. Cries of "freedom" echoed around Ottawa, nicely reinforcing what was being said about Saudi authoritarianism. It was perfect.

But that was likely the high-water mark for the Ethical Oil campaign, since it succeeds only if people take exception to it to validate the controversy it seeks to create. When Velshi left for the PMO and turned things over to the capable, yet tamer conservative blogger and student Kathryn Marshall, this signaled the likely slow fade into the sunset for the ethical oil push, since it's hard to see how the campaign stays relevant without courting ever greater amounts of controversy.

So what was the Velshi foray out of and back into the Conservative Party all about? We can only speculate.

Was the Conservative Party really concerned about occupying the moral low ground on the tar sands, knowing that only third-party validation outside of government could help? And, if the plan is to keep doing nothing about tar sands destruction, shouldn't this third party try to change the channel by pointing fingers at others, and as loudly as possible?

Or, was this the equivalent of contracting out a hit? The rules of diplomacy say that the Conservative government cannot directly attack Canada's oil competitors -- particularly the ones it finds distasteful -- using the kind of inflammatory language Velshi resorted to ("bastards," all of them...), so did it prime an outside entity to do so? Given how close Velshi is to Kenney, it's hard to believe that the latter wasn't kept in the loop as Velshi was working up the inflammatory ads that he knew would provoke a reaction -- after all, Kenney (and Joe Oliver) reacted quickly to the threat of Saudi legal action.

Ultimately we'll never know the answers to these questions unless Velshi or somebody else close to the action chooses to tell us. Velshi was certainly doing the bidding of several parties, but they are likely to remain hidden from us, and hidden by design.

And, a final word: while both Levant and the Ethical Oil push live on controversy, any PR person worth his or her salt will tell the tar sands industry that the best place for them to be in the media over time is, in fact, nowhere. Adding flames to the oil, as the ethical push has done, accomplishes the opposite. Only real change, validated by independent critics so that the story has a credible ending, wins the PR war.

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