The government of Premier Alison Redford is undermining the independence of the justice system by inserting a partisan statement into news releases announcing judicial appointments, critics say.
Since mid-April, the taxpayer-funded Public Affairs Bureau, which is supposed to be apolitical, has issued two such releases in relation to provincial court.
One announces the appointment of Gordon Yake as a judge in Alberta’s central region. The other announces judge Lawrence Anderson’s promotion to assistant chief judge of Edmonton criminal court.
Although these are supposed to be strictly apolitical announcements, Public Affairs Bureau officer Ian Roddick added a "boilerplate" statement to each release: "Our government was elected to keep building Alberta, to live within its means and to fight to open new markets for Alberta’s resources. We will continue to deliver the responsible change Albertans voted for."
D’Arcy DePoe, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association, said partisan messages have no place in news releases concerning the judiciary.
"It cheapens the announcement and it attaches a political message to an announcement that should be politically, completely neutral," he said.
DePoe said such a statement could damage the reputation of the courts, which must be strictly politically independent. "Here is this very positive announcement - we have a new chief judge - and to attach this pure political propaganda statement to it, seems to marry the two together," DePoe said. "And that’s not appropriate."
Allan Lefever, the provincial court’s deputy chief justice, declined comment on the government news releases.
Boilerplate found in more than 80 releases
CBC News reported in March that Public Affairs Bureau employees were being directed to insert the political statement into their departmental communications. An internal Feb. 22 email memo from acting bureau manager Tracy Balash informed staff that, "the new release template has also changed slightly to include a boilerplate at the bottom in support of our new themes."
Since then, the message has appeared in more than 80 Government of Alberta news releases, for topics ranging from the provincial budget to an information bulletin on Alberta’s road reports service.
CBC News showed the partisan boilerplate statement to several political scientists, including two experts in political communications.
All said the statement is blatantly political, bordering on propaganda, and should not appear in communications funded with taxpayer money.
"This to me indicates a very strong disregard on the part of the Redford government for these kinds of really very basic requirements," MacEwan University political scientist John Soroski said in March.
Redford declined an interview request from CBC News.
But in a terse email, her communications director, Stefan Baranski, insisted, as he had previously, that the boilerplate message is not partisan.
"The boilerplate refers to our government’s priorities that the people of Alberta elected us to deliver," Baranski wrote. "How ‘Building Alberta,’ ‘Opening New Markets,’ or ‘Living within our means’ is in any way political is beyond me.
"Your linking of that boilerplate to judicial independence is a ridiculous characterization and below the otherwise exceptional standards of the CBC," Baranski wrote, adding, "I will be taking this up with your editors."
But NDP MLA Rachel Notley said the message is blatantly partisan.
"First of all, the boilerplate message references, ‘This is what Albertans voted for,’" Notley said. "So that is, of course, explicitly political.
"For any staff person or political adviser to suggest that this language is not political, it is kind of like saying the sun rises in the west."
Partisan message breaches government’s own policy
The Alberta government’s communications policy specifically prohibits the use of partisan language in press releases.
"It is the policy of the Government of Alberta to … respect the integrity and impartiality of the Alberta Public Service in keeping with the Alberta Code of Conduct and Ethics," the policy states.
"Partisan political matters are the exclusive domain of Ministers and their offices," it continues.
Alberta’s stated communications policy mirrors that of other provinces, as well as the federal government. The Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada is responsible for enforcing the federal government’s communications policy. It states that all news releases must be politically neutral.
"Public service managers and employees are expected to provide information services in a non-partisan fashion consistent with the principles of parliamentary democracy and ministerial responsibility."
In January, federal International Development Minister Julian Fantino was sharply criticized by both media and the opposition after partisan letters were posted to the Canadian International Development Agency website. The posts were promptly taken down.
Alberta Public Services Commissioner Dwight Dibben is responsible for ensuring the political neutrality of the province's civil servants, including Public Affairs Bureau staff who have been directed to insert the partisan boilerplate into departmental news releases.
CBC News has repeatedly sought an interview with Dibben since March but he has declined. Dibben is a former executive assistant to several Tory ministers.
Critics tell government to stop politicizing communications
Notley said that sort of blatant political messaging is an abuse of the taxpayer-funded Public Affairs Bureau, and it is not what Albertans voted for.
"They voted for their taxpayers’ dollars to be used wisely, and political messaging for the Progressive Conservative party is not, I think, what most Albertans would suggest is a wise use."
DePoe said the Redford government should drop the boilerplate from any future news releases concerning Alberta’s judicial system.
"They seize every opportunity they can to message," he said. "And it is transparent. They should grow up a little and cut it out."
Read the email sent to CBC News by Stefan Baranski, communications director for Premier Alison Redford: