The government of Premier Alison Redford has crossed an ethical line by using a government of Alberta news release to criticize opposition parties, critics say.
Press secretaries Craig Loewen and Kim Misik issued the news release on Alberta Government letterhead, on Dec. 6th, at the end of a bruising legislative session in which Redford’s integrity was repeatedly questioned by opposition parties.
The opposition directly accused Redford of lying for insisting she did not make the decision to award a potentially lucrative tobacco-litigation contract to a Calgary law firm to which she had close personal and political ties. Numerous documents indicated Redford made the decision but she insisted Verlyn Olson, her successor as justice minister, made it.
The news release trumpets the passage of 10 pieces of what it says was legislation which represents "the transformational change Premier Alison Redford promised." But the news release also took a partisan swipe at the opposition.
"While the opposition focused on an agenda of unprecedented personal attacks, Premier Redford and the government caucus remained focused on the issues that matter to Albertans," the news release states.
"I think it’s definitely a transgression," said Wilfrid Laurier University political scientist Simon Kiss, an expert in political communications. "I think it’s pretty inappropriate for government resources and government staff to be including partisan attacks in public communications."Kiss is a former spokesman for the Alberta NDP who wrote his doctoral thesis on Alberta government communications, including the Public Affairs Bureau.
First time government criticizes opposition in news release
Kiss said he has never seen another ruling party — provincial or federal — use a government news release to criticize the opposition.
The release, he said, signals a watershed moment in Alberta government communications. Traditionally, successive ruling governments avoided highly partisan communications because, Kiss said, they have always claimed to speak on behalf of all Albertans, since the province has functioned like a one-party state for decades.
But with a tough, effective political rival in the Opposition Wildrose, Kiss said the Redford government may have decided the old way of communicating is no longer relevant.
"They have taken the gloves off," Kiss said.
Redford, and her advisors, have likely decided partisan attacks must be met with equally partisan attacks, Kiss said. But he wonders how the public will react to such a shift.
"I don’t know if incumbent governments do well when they get into real partisan mudslinging with the opposition," he said.
During the heated debate surrounding the controversial tobacco-litigation contract, New Democrat Leader Brian Mason called Redford a liar, effectively daring her to sue him by making the statement outside the legislative chamber where he has no legal immunity.
Alberta political culture has 'deteriorated'
Mason, an MLA since 2000, said the use of an Alberta government news release to criticize the opposition further supports his belief that the political culture has been transformed, but not in the way Redford claims.
"It has deteriorated," he said. "And quite frankly it has deteriorated considerably since Alison Redford won the leadership. She doesn’t seem to respect the normal bounds between government and politics. And she certainly doesn’t respect the opposition.
"And now the government itself is using taxpayer’s money for political purposes to attack the opposition," Mason said.
Legislative clerk David McNeill said there is nothing that bars a ruling party from using government news releases for political purposes. He said it essentially up to the public to police the government.
Loewen and Misik declined to be interviewed. But in an email to CBC News, Loewen insisted the news release was not partisan, and said it was "completely inaccurate and misleading," to portray it as such.
"This has nothing to do with the PC Party, NDP, WRP, or ALP, it is about the government and the opposition," Loewen said. "As someone who follows the government closely, I’m certain you are aware that when the opposition gets up in QP (Question Period), they are questioning the government and we do and will continue to respond."
Mason said the statement from Loewen clearly shows he doesn’t understand, or ignores, the distinction between what is supposed to be apolitical government of Alberta communications and partisan Tory government propaganda.
"He is wrong," Mason said. "I think that the allegation that the opposition is making personal attacks against the government is a political statement. It’s a partisan statement. It’s not a statement of government policy, but rather reflects the communications strategy that the premier is using in order to deflect attacks about her integrity."