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NDP's Made in Alberta ads are partisan and an abuse of public money, expert says

The Alberta NDP government’s ubiquitous Made in Alberta radio and TV ads are partisan and an abuse of public money, an expert in political communications says.

Stop wasting taxpayers' dollars on 'what is blatantly campaign propaganda,’ UCP says

Still image from an NDP Made in Alberta television advertisement. (Alberta NDP)

The Alberta NDP government's ubiquitous Made in Alberta radio and TV ads are partisan and an abuse of public money, an expert in political communications says.

The ads have appeared on radio and TV in the province for several weeks. Earlier this month, the Official Opposition United Conservative Party issued a news release calling on the NDP to stop using taxpayers' money for political propaganda.

CBC News provided the ads to Jonathan Rose, an associate professor in the department of political studies at Queen's University.

"I think [the UCP] are right that the Made in Alberta ads are partisan," Rose said. "What [the NDP] do is conflate the party's own partisan interests with that of the government."

Rose said a "litmus" test to determine if government ads are essential is if the ads provide useful information that compels a particular behaviour — for example, ads that warn the public to file their tax returns on time or be careful to not start forest fires would be considered essential, and a proper use of taxpayers' money.

'Feel-good' ads are 'non-essential'

Rose said the Made in Alberta campaign is clearly "non-essential" because they are simply "feel-good" ads.

"They don't ask the viewer or listener to do anything," Rose said. "They remind the viewer that the government is working on behalf of its citizens, which could be a partisan message, and they don't really contribute too much information."

Queen's University professor Jonathan Rose supports the idea of employing the auditor general as an independent arbiter of what constitutes political advertising. (Jonathan Rose)

A 30-second spot broadcast for weeks on private radio stations across the province states:

"When the going gets tough, Albertans don't back down. We roll up our sleeves and make things happen while we work to get our oil to new markets. We're also going to refine more, process more, and train more. And create more of the oil-and-gas-based products the world needs now, right here at home.

"The future is coming and it's made in Alberta. To learn more, visit Alberta.ca. A message from the government of Alberta."

Cheryl Oates, Premier Rachel Notley's communications director, did not respond to interview requests. Instead, she provided an emailed statement in which she insisted the ads were necessary to quell public anxiety about energy market access and "support confidence in our economic future."

Oates said Albertans have a right to know about the NDP government's multi-billion dollar, made-in-Alberta upgrading and refining program that she said is supporting the oil-and-gas industry "in a time of market constraint."

"And while academics from outside the province may lack appreciation for the essential nature of our market access challenges, and the scope and impact of economic anxiety they create, we do not," Oates said, suggesting that only the NDP and Albertans can understand the province's Zeitgeist and economic realities.

UCP MLA Jason Nixon said the NDP needs to immediately stop the ads.

"Stop wasting taxpayers' dollars on what is blatantly campaign propaganda for the NDP and call an election," Nixon said Friday at Edmonton's Expo Centre, where the UCP is holding an election-readiness conference.

Nixon acknowledged the UCP includes MLAs who served under previous Progressive Conservative governments that also misused public money and resources on partisan communications. He said the UCP would legislate an end to such practices.

UCP would ban practice

The UCP has proposed a Partisan Government Advertising Act that would give the auditor general the authority to prohibit government ads deemed to be partisan.

The act would also extend the current blackout on non-essential government advertising to Dec. 1, months before the current blackout period, which begins when the election is called.

Rose said both are good ideas, because all parties, irrespective of political ideology, are tempted to use public money to advance partisan interests.

He said the UCP's reforms, if implemented, would bring Alberta in line with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which he said have stronger pre-election advertising laws.

"I think the trend towards limiting advertisements prior to an election is a good one," Rose said. "Some of the research I have done suggests that governments are more likely to increase advertising in election years.

"Governments are going to prime the electorate and [get them] thinking about what the ballot-box question should be and use taxpayers' money to do so," he said. "So any limitation that might inhibit governments from doing that prior to the writ, I think, is a good one."

Involve auditor general, prof says

Rose also supports the idea of employing the auditor general as an independent arbiter of what constitutes political advertising.

"It avoids the problem of it being contaminated by any partisan interests and it has the legitimacy of an office that has strong credibility on independence."

Oates however, insisted that "advertising decisions are not made differently based on proximity to an election. If an advertisement is appropriate two years before an election, it is appropriate two months before an election. Government ads that are partisan in nature are never appropriate."

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@charlesrusnell

About the Author

Charles Rusnell

Investigative reporter

Charles Rusnell is a reporter with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. His journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Send tips in confidence to cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca. and follow him on Twitter@charlesrusnell

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