Redford ramps up politicization of government communications

The government of Premier Alison Redford is increasing its politicization of government communications, and in the process, critics say, breaching ethics policies and misusing public resources for political purposes.

Civil servants directed to insert political statements in news releases

The government of Premier Alison Redford is increasing its politicization of government communications, and in the process, critics say, breaching ethics policies and misusing public resources for political purposes.

An internal memo obtained by CBC News shows non-partisan civil servants, employees of the Public Affairs Bureau, have been told to insert "boilerplate" political statements into departmental communications.

Political scientist John Soroski says politicing news releases signals a disturbing communications trend. (CBC)

The memo also tells bureau staff that emerging key messages from press secretaries are to be funnelled through Redford’s political staff: issues manager Michael Norris and communications director Stefan Baranski.

"They have clearly signalled that they are going to put their own political filter on everything that comes out of the government," MacEwan University political scientist John Soroski said.

"It really causes Albertans, I would think, to question the value of everything the government is telling us," Soroski said.

Few Albertans know the Public Affairs Bureau is a government department, funded by taxpayer money and is therefore supposed to provide non-partisan information. But opposition parties have long accused the bureau of being the political communications arm of successive Tory governments.

While many government departments are facing budget cuts, the bureau budget has increased dramatically under Redford. Its budget jumped from $14.2 million in 2010-2011 to $17.6 million in 2011-2012. In 2012-2013 the government budgeted more than $20 million for the bureau, although it expects to pare that to about $19 million.

Staff directed to insert key messages

A Feb. 22 email memo from acting bureau manager Tracy Balash directs staff to insert into each news release "a boilerplate at the bottom in support of our new themes. It reads: ‘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.’"

CBC News found 13 departmental news releases containing that "boilerplate" statement, including a recent Alberta Transportation Information Bulletin, meant simply to inform the public that highway-condition information is available by calling 511.

"It is attempted political manipulation of the public service, and public servants go along because they know their neck is on the line," University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman said.

Political scientist Nelson Wiseman said such news releases are an attempt at political manipulation of the public service. (CBC)

"This to me indicates a very strong disregard on the part of the Redford government for these kinds of really very basic requirements," Soroski said.

Redford declined an interview request from CBC News. In an email earlier this month, Baranski, referring to the "boilerplate" statement, said: "How is this in any way partisan? You obviously have a very strange definition of the term."

Queen’s University political scientist Jonathan Rose, an expert in political communications, said the boilerplate statement was "clearly partisan" and "reinforces a party-centred message by talking about ‘our government being elected.’"

Alberta appears to be following the lead of the federal and Ontario governments in politicizing government communications.

The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been sharply criticized for muzzling government scientists and politically stage managing the communications of various departments.

In Ontario, the ruling Liberal government under both Dalton McGuinty and new leader Kathleen Wynne, have also been inserting political statements into what should be non-partisan government communications.

Other provinces however, strictly avoid partisan government communications. In Saskatchewan, for example, partisan statements are only issued through ruling Saskatchewan Party caucus news releases, press secretary James Parker said.

The Alberta government’s own policies specifically mandate non-partisan government communications and also protect the political neutrality of civil servants.

"As outlined in the government’s Code of Conduct, partisan political matters are the exclusive domain of Ministers and their offices," the government policy states. And, "it is the policy of the Government of Alberta to…respect the integrity and impartiality ofthe Alberta Public Service in keeping with the Alberta Code of Conduct and Ethics.

"Employees are expected in all regards to conduct their duties with impartiality."

Staff troubled by politicization

But one bureau employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many in the bureau are troubled by its increasing politicization.

"It is far more political now," the employee said. "The bureau has been completely politicized, right down to the lowest levels."

The employee said government communications are increasingly being used to advance the political careers of the premier and ministers.

For example, a March 12 Alberta government news release about an agreement to fund Metis settlements was issued under the headline, "Premier Redford delivers on commitment to Metis communities" and stated the agreement had been signed between the "Redford government and the Metis Settlements Council."

Wiseman said Redford, like Harper and McGuinty, conflates the government with her own name, a form of political brand marketing that misuses public resources.

"This is not the Alison Redford government," he said. "The media can use that term, but legally this is the Government of Alberta.

"How could anybody say that with a straight face?"

The Redford government has a growing history of issuing highly politicized news releases under Government of Alberta letterhead.

A Dec. 6, 2012 news release, entitled "Redford Government delivers on issues that matter to Albertans," trumpeted the passage of 10 pieces of legislation it claimed represented "the transformational change Premier Alison Redford promised." It 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.

Government Issues Partisan Releases

A Feb. 8, 2013 new release issued again under Alberta government letterhead was entitled "Fact Check: Danielle Smith Wrong About Alberta Economic Summit." The release reads like a political screed, with a string of point-form attacks on Smith and the Wildrose party.

Wiseman said the release, written by Redford’s communications director Stefan Baranski, was the equivalent of throwing a pie in someone’s face.

"I thought, ‘What is it your business to be attacking Danielle Smith?’" he said.

In an interview with CBC News, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said if the release attacking her had been issued by the Conservative party caucus, as opposed to the Government of Alberta, she would have no problem with it.

"Because we give some pretty hard press releases ourselves," she said. "But this is from the government, which is supposed to be representing all Albertans.

"The problem with the PCs—and this has been a problem that we have observed for years and years and years—is they don’t know the difference between government activity, paid for by taxpayers, and partisan activity, which should not—must not—be paid for by taxpayers."

Government provides opaque budget information

Recently, on budget day, the Redford government refused to provide straightforward information about the province’s finances, specifically the amount of the deficit.

Soroski said this refusal to be transparent about the province’s finances, coupled with the increasingly partisan government communications, signals a disturbing communications trend.

"It looks in every case that this government is choosing to engage in a manipulative form of conversation with Albertans, at the budget level, at the Public Affairs Bureau level, at the premier’s level," Soroski said.

"It doesn’t surprise me when governments attempt to be manipulative, but for a premier who promised that they would bring transparency, to depart from it so fully, so quickly, and so completely in such a short period of time, I’m really quite stunned by it."