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Alberta Premier Alison Redford with a member of her staff Jay O’Neill in Calgary April 24, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Alberta Premier Alison Redford with a member of her staff Jay O’Neill in Calgary April 24, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

POLITICS

Alberta Premier’s senior spokesman quits Add to ...

It’s an alluring notion for any premier under fire: get a new spokesperson and, perhaps, reverse your fortunes.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford now finds herself facing a changing of the guard after five of her communications staff have resigned over the past month. The latest to leave is Jay O’Neill, her long-time director of communications.

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His departure follows those of Kim Misik, Nikki Booth, Tracy Balash and Tammy Forbes. All have taken, or plan to find, other jobs in government, and the Premier’s Office said none were fired. Ms. Booth and Mr. O’Neill have continued in their jobs temporarily as new staff are brought on.

“It’s a personal decision,” Mr. O’Neill said in his legislature office on Thursday, adding that any suggestion Ms. Redford is cleaning house is the “farthest thing from the truth.” The position paid $219,298 in the fiscal year 2012, documents show, but such jobs typically require exceptionally long hours.

“It’s a long haul, and it was just the right time before we got to [the resumption of the legislative] session. You don’t want to do anything before session is on… the timing’s the right time for all these people,” Mr. O’Neill said.

So many people leaving at once is unusual, particularly Mr. O’Neill, who has been Ms. Redford’s communications director for several years, since she was justice minister.

But Ms. Redford has been Premier for only 15 months. For so many people to leave now amounts to a relatively short lifespan in those jobs, and that often means trouble, said David Taras, a political analyst and professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

“Ambitious people usually like to have those jobs. They’re stepping stones and contacts to a whole world of other jobs. So to take yourself out of those jobs means you got caught in political whiplash, or you didn’t agree with somebody, or your policies weren’t followed for long,” he said. “It is a signal of discontent and trouble.”

Mr. O’Neill will be replaced by Stefan Baranski, a communications adviser who joined Ms. Redford’s office in the fall. Mr. Baranski helped run the Toronto mayoral campaign of George Smitherman, who lost to Rob Ford. Mr. Baranski has also worked with the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. He declined to comment on his new role.

Mr. O’Neill was under contract to the Premier’s Office and therefore is not guaranteed work elsewhere in government. He plans to stay on in the short-term, and has not decided his next step, although he hopes it’s within government. “Don’t know where yet, I’m in no rush,” he said.

Ms. Booth is moving to the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. Ms. Misik, who was the Premier’s press secretary, is on vacation, but has said she plans to find a job elsewhere in government. Ms. Forbes is now chief of staff for Tourism Minister Christine Cusanelli, while Ms. Balash went to the province’s overarching communications agency, the Public Affairs Bureau. That agency is also in a period of transition after the retirement of Kathy Lazowski, its executive director of strategic communications.

The departures also come after a tumultuous fall legislative session for the Premier, and just before the release of her budget, which is expected to show a large deficit and include spending cuts. Polls show Ms. Redford’s popularity has dropped since the spring election.

“A key thing in communication, of course, is to dominate the agenda. And the Wildrose seized the agenda from the government,” Prof. Taras said, adding: “It’s not like they’re leaving at a time when the Premier’s been very successful in communicating. They’re leaving at a time when strategies have fallen apart.”

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