The latest provincial budget comes out on March 6 and the opposition is already circling, with Wildrose leading the charge. On February 25, Alberta’s other right wing released its budget recommendations. No surprise, there were lots of savings to be found in the bullet points (see, it’s easy!).
It was bullet number 4 that, as an editor, caught my eye: cut the size of the Public Affairs Bureau in half [$10 million]. Ten million!
For those of you who don’t know, the PAB is the sprawling communications branch of the government, which is mandated to be a non-partisan disperser of information. You know, for the citizens. Of course, after 41 years of Progressive Conservative rule and some tweaking by the late Ralph Klein, the PAB is anything but neutral and has grown exponentially, from $10 million in 2002-03 to nearly $20 million today.
The PAB has inserted Conservative boilerplate into press releases (now seemingly replaced with touting the Building Alberta Plan, a $1.7 million branding exercise praising Alison Redford and featuring the blue and orange of the PCs), it relentlessly praises the Conservative agenda, and its spokespeople are well-trained professionals adept at not really answering the question. It amounts to a taxpayer-funded political campaign that never ends. The government stresses that it has introduced press secretaries for cabinet ministers in order to handle the more partisan communications, but the PAB, which reports to the government’s executive council, is still controlled by the Office of the Premier.
When we ran a story on the PAB in 2011, we couldn’t get Redford on record and said so in our story. The day it was published, Stephen Carter, then the premier’s chief of staff, phoned to yell profanities at me. It was an indication of just how twitchy this administration is when it comes to the topic, and that was before they started shovelling millions of extra dollars into it.
The fact that you can cut $10 million and there’s still $10 million left over should be of deep concern to Albertans who want unbiased information about what our government is doing. At a time when newsrooms are being slashed, those that spin the news of the day are getting paid a lot of money and have a lot of resources at their disposal. In fact, 77 people who worked in communication (not all in the PAB) for the Executive Council in 2013 made over $100,000. The government is doubling down on information control.
Needless to say, the opposition parties aren’t big fans of the bureau. They’ve been on the losing end of slanted government communications for years and are eager, at least while still sitting in opposition benches, to hack away at the flacks. Some, like the Alberta Liberal Party, would do away with the whole thing. Some, like the NDP and the Wildrose, would greatly reduce its size and scope, hopefully leading to an organization that obeys the government’s own code of conduct, which states “partisan political matters are the exclusive domain of Ministers and their offices….”
Of course, the fact of the matter is that this government desperately needs to spin what has become a horror show. Slashing of post-secondary budgets after promising increases, walking away from its obligations to fund the Epcor Centre, excessive and entitled travel expenses, the depletion of our savings and the near psychotic promotion of out-of-control growth in the oilsands (including millions spent to lobby U.S. lawmakers over a private company’s pipeline), among so many other examples — Redford and her crowd have been a dismal failure. Rather than owning up to it, or trying to change, they shovel money into “issues management” while dismantling collective bargaining and reducing pensions in the public sector.
Losing a chunk of one’s pension, however, isn’t really anyone’s fault but those who chose to work in the wrong area of government. Had they decided on communications rather than, say, tracking down royalty payments, they could walk away with a padded bank account, and maybe even a $40,000 severance package. But you’d think with all of those communications professionals, someone could have at least picked up the phone and told the Alberta Union of Public Employees they were gutting their benefits. Sorry, I mean, “recalibrating union members’ golden handshakes for the benefit of all Alberta taxpayers. #WeAreAlberta. #ResponsibleChange.”