Overhaul to Alberta government PR wing called 'lipstick on a pig'

A communications branch of the Alberta government, long criticized for being a propaganda arm of the premier’s office, is getting a remake.

Public affairs bureau labelled as 'propaganda arm' of premier's office is moved away from executive council

An Alberta government communications agency under the Premier's office has been moved to a new government department and will consolidate the work of all government communications. (Alberta Environment)

A communications branch of the Alberta government, long criticized for being a propaganda arm of the premier's office, is getting a remake.

As of Sept. 1, the much-maligned public affairs bureau (PAB) will be moved from executive council, led by Premier Rachel Notley, to the treasury board and finance, under Finance Minister Joe Ceci.

The change is being made because of the need to cut spending, said Corey Hogan, managing director of the PAB.

"Direction from Premier [Notley], has been to find in-year savings, and to think innovatively about how we can deliver the same or better service to Albertans without laying off staff," said Hogan in an interview with CBC.

Consolidating the work of marketing and communications across all government departments, the PAB will become a corporate service called communications and public engagement, Hogan said.

The "swing capacity" of using communications staff across all government ministries will reduce the need to use outside contracts, said Hogan.

"We expect that this change could save government — and will save government when fully implemented — about $4.5 million or about 15 percent of the cost of communications," said Hogan.

Depending on how it's calculated, Hogan estimates the annual communication budgets for all government services is about $30 million.

'Lipstick on a pig'

The PAB was established many decades ago, but attracted attention when it was centralized under the premier's office in the early 1990s and adopted a more political tone.

Liberal Leader David Khan questions whether moving the PAB from the premier’s office will do anything to “de-politicize” government advertising. (Supplied)

Liberal Leader David Khan says the corporate change to the PAB can be compared to "putting lipstick on a pig."

Khan said the Liberals have long called for the the PAB to be disbanded, and this merely moves the structure to a different government department.

He questioned whether the move from the premier's office will do anything to "de-politicize" government advertising.

Khan said by comparison Ontario government ads must be approved by a non-partisan officer of the Ontario legislature to ensure government messaging isn't politicized by the governing party.

"I think we should use this opportunity to look into its function and independence — and its budget," said Khan.

Political arm for more than a generation 

United Conservative Party (UCP) MLA Derek Fildebrandt is an outspoken critic of the PAB.

"It has been a partisan political arm of the premier's office for over a generation, and it got no better under the NDP," said Fildebrandt, who questions the need for a PAB in the first place. 

"There is zero value to Albertans of having the government preach to them about why they need a carbon tax. The NDP should pay for that out of their own pocket," he said.

The Alberta government faced a backlash for allocating $4.5 million to an advertising campaign blitz to explain the carbon levy in late 2016. 

Stick to our lane

Corey Hogan rejects the notion the PAB was ever a propaganda machine. He said the public has a right to know, and the government has a duty to inform.

"Where that line is, I think, is in some cases in the eye of the beholder. But we're governed by a strict code of ethics; we stay non-partisan and we stick to our lane," he said.

The public affairs bureau has been widely criticized by opposition parties over the years for being a bloated waste of taxpayer money.

While in opposition, Rachel Notley was a sharp critic of the politicalization of the bureau.

In a June 2013 interview with CBC, Notley criticized the government of then-premier Alison Redford for inserting partisan statements into government news releases.

"The PC party sees the government of Alberta, and the taxpayers' dollars that we all provide them, as their political playground toy, and they see it as something they can do with whatever they please," Notley said at the time.