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Greg Neiman - Red Deer Advocate

Greg Neiman is a former Red Deer Advocate editor who now contributes regular columns and blogs which can be found in the Red Deer Advocate and on RedDeerAdvocate.com. Follow his blog at www.readersadvocate.blogspot.ca

Decisions based on facts, not allegations

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Red Deer Advocate

There's a balance, an ongoing conversation between people who report the news, and the people who read and receive it. When I started in this business about 40 years ago, exchanges on issues occurred at the speed of Canada Post and the interval of publication.

In some ways, it still does. I appreciate the long-term rejoinders in monthly publications like The Walrus or weekly newsmagazines. Even the more rapid give-and-take that occurs in your local daily gives some time for thought, while histories that develop in conversations – all duly recorded – can be illuminating.

But in this electronic age, instant reactions to events as they are revealed become part of the events themselves. Even when the story is years old.

Just ask the Alberta premier. When old political skeletons are revealed, their new life is not in the revelation, but in how people react. There is no evidence of direct plotting by Alison Redford to do unethical party fundraising, or to unethically direct lucrative contracts to firms with whom she has personal ties. But news that unethical donations have been made in the past, or that personal ties exist, gives stories about these things a decidedly hot glow.

Or consider the mayors of certain Quebec cities, where years-old revelations of shady payments for construction contracts are coming to light. The story is one thing, the instant online reactions are a story unto themselves.

The reaction to the news in fact becomes bigger than the news itself, because the conversations affect how many people over a wide area make decisions. These decisions have consequences, far beyond the outcomes of the original events.

Here's a good recent example. An investigation by CBC reporters discovered that two years ago, CN Rail formed a "mystery train" that shuttled back and forth between Sarnia and Port Huron, Mich. The train, loaded with about $25 million worth of biodiesel, went back and forth across the border (a trip of about three km) numerous times, clearing customs both ways, without ever being unloaded. The shipping bill paid to CN was about $2.6 million.

The practice seemed common enough for CN administrators to feel confident sending emails ordering staff to ensure these trips went fast and smooth. Move the train, do the paperwork, move the train back, repeat as quickly as possible.

The American companies listed as customers were HeroBX and Northern Biodiesel. CBC says CN records show the Canadian company that arranged the deal is Bioversal Trading Inc. Bioversal is being investigated by the Canada Border Services Agency on allegations it made false statements to avoid shipping duties in Romania and Italy.

That's pretty well all we really know about this.

But the replies to the story say a whole lot more. People – whose identities are not revealed – claim (in the online discussion that follows the CBC story on its web site) that they have worked in the transportation industry. Shady stuff like this happens all the time, they say.

Fuel is trucked from Alberta to Montana, unloaded, and then reloaded and trucked back. Somebody gets a tax-paid incentive to do so.

Often, we are told, barges shuttle product back and forth, either to keep inventory in transit (and off the books), or to collect export incentives – both ways.

The shippers are told to shut up and drive. Which they do, because their companies have contracts to ship stuff around, not ask difficult questions.

Well, as you can imagine, difficult questions are now being asked everywhere.

What's the real purpose of government incentives to make green fuels? Is anyone monitoring where the product is actually going, and whether the tax incentives are achieving anything? How much phantom product is just running around on gravy trains and on truck fleets for the purposes of collecting export incentives, with no benefit to taxpayers?

All on the basis of allegations from people who don't even give us their names.

As far as the news goes, we just don't know the facts yet. But in the comment section, it's a hurricane of malfeasance by corporations and governments on both sides of the Canada/U.S.border.

How do you think this will affect decisions the next time a government committee suggests it might be a good idea to use tax money to subsidize any kind of export program?

We need to make decisions based on facts, not nameless allegations. More corporate and government secrecy will not solve this discrepancy. Just ask the premier of Alberta, or the mayors of Mascouche and Laval in Quebec, or top bureaucrats in Montreal.

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