NDP uses government news releases for Stampede 'charm offensive'

The Alberta NDP government is announcing campaign-style photo ops by cabinet ministers at the Calgary Stampede through news releases sent by the non-partisan Public Affairs Bureau, not the NDP caucus.

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Premier Rachel Notley flipped and served pancakes at the premier's annual Calgary Stampede breakfast on Monday. She was accompanied by the majority of her caucus, including MLAs from outside Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The Alberta NDP government is announcing campaign-style photo ops by cabinet ministers at the Calgary Stampede through news releases sent by the non-partisan Public Affairs Bureau, not the NDP caucus.

Government news releases typically are used to announce new government policies. But in the past week, the events have tended to be light on policy.

On Tuesday, Education Minister David Eggen played with student musicians who are members of  the Calgary Stampede Showband. 

The next day Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee took part in a prize drop event at a BMO Kids' Day at the Stampede, and she was interviewed by the Stampede's "junior reporter."

On Thursday, Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier is scheduled to milk a cow and "talk about his experience growing up on a farm," a press release says.

No stampede of policy announcements

No policy announcements were connected with any of these appearances. 

Cabinet ministers weren't the only ones making the rounds at pancake breakfasts and barbecues. 

The government held a caucus meeting at the McDougall Centre on Monday after the premier's pancake breakfast.

So nearly 20 NDP MLAs from Edmonton and other parts of Alberta were able to join their Calgary caucus colleagues at Stampede events on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

Cheryl Oates, director of communications for the premier's office, said in an email Wednesday that the Public Affairs Bureau is acting in its capacity of supporting members of cabinet when it promotes their appearances during Stampede.

Oates was not available for an interview on the issue. But she took questions by email. As for the issue of non-Calgary MLAs attending Stampede events on the government dime, Oates said it is within the rules. 

Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee tossed prizes at a Stampede event on Wednesday. Her appearance was announced through a government news release (CBC)

"The LAO (Legislative Assembly Office) has clear guidelines and rules that allow MLAs to travel the province and engage with Albertans in and out of their ridings," she wrote. "Our caucus has been here doing government work, engaging with Albertans, business and non-profits."

When asked whether the NDP would make a similar strong showing at K-Days in Edmonton, Oates said government representatives will be in the parade and at the premier's pancake breakfast. Appearances by cabinet ministers will be reflected on a future public itinerary, she added. 

Calgary a challenge for NDP 

The Stampede charm offensive comes as the NDP is trying to shore up support in Calgary and rural Alberta before the next provincial election, currently scheduled for 2019.

Recent polls suggest two-thirds of Albertans disapprove of Premier Rachel Notley's performance.

Lori Williams, assistant professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University, says the Stampede offers a great opportunity for politicians to meet with rural Albertans as well as Calgarians.

But it's a question whether making a strong showing at Stampede will change many voters' minds about the NDP.

"From a rural perspective, at least, Bill 6 (farm safety bill which triggered rural protests) has really done some damage to the NDP, and Calgary is suffering significantly with the economy still," Williams said. "Charm offensives are not going to be very effective against economic challenges."

NDP MLAs from Calgary were joined by MLAs from Edmonton and other parts of Alberta at Stampede events. (NDP Caucus )

Williams said the government hasn't spent much time in Calgary since the last election and they want to look like they care about issues outside Edmonton.

While the NDP needs to listen and connect with voters, Williams said future support much depends on what happens with their economic diversification effort over the next two years.

A stagnant economy and the possibility of a new united conservative party could make it more difficult for the NDP to keep their seats in Calgary in the next election.