For a province driven by energy revenue, the stakes were high – advocates and opponents gathered in Nebraska last month for an explosive hearing on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a critical project for Alberta’s oil sands.
It was a premium opportunity for a government increasingly focused on selling its message, and two people were there carrying the provincial banner. One was Alberta’s top Washington advocate, Tristan Sanregret. His colleague was David Sands, a government spokesman.
Mr. Sands works for the province’s Public Affairs Bureau, an overarching communications arm of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government. Such agencies are common across Canada, and tread a fine line with what’s meant to be non-partisan spinning for the government. Mr. Sands’ presence at the hearing, however, signals much about the province’s approach to the oil sands – it’s framed as a public relations battle.
As such, the PAB has taken on a growing role at a pivotal time – but now the new Premier has left the door open to its overhaul.
While the agency leads the way in the province’s aggressive oil sands messaging, many critics deride it as a propaganda tool. PAB staff regularly tour foreign journalists and delegates through the mines and sites of the oil sands. The agency employs the directors of communications in each ministry, all of whom report back to an official in the Premier’s office whose salary ($288,004 last year) is higher than that of a cabinet minister. If you slam a PC minister on Twitter, expect a tweet back from the PAB.
That could change. Premier Alison Redford may follow in the steps of B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who re-branded her own PAB after taking office.
“There may be some developments in the next two or three weeks. We are trying to move as quickly as we can. We are evolving,” Ms. Redford said this week when asked about the PAB’s fate. “So, yep, stay tuned.”
Staff say publicly no decision has been made about an overhaul. “I haven’t heard any discussions on that,” said Jay O’Neill, the Premier’s spokesman and a PAB staffer.
Like Ms. Redford, Ms. Clark was elected on messages of transparency and change. B.C.’s PAB was slain to send a token signal the government had been doing too much spin. It has the same budget but is now called Government Communications and Public Engagement.
The oil sands may prove to be a similar catalyst for change at Alberta’s PAB, which was first created in 1952 as the Publicity Bureau, but held a range of different responsibilities. Former premier Ralph Klein overhauled it after winning his first election as leader in 1993, slashing its budget as part of a bid to balance the government books.
Its budget has more than recovered, and now sits at nearly $20-million annually, including money spent on rebranding the province (“Freedom to Create. Spirit to Achieve”). Funding is now twice what it was in Mr. Klein’s early years, even as the PAB’s other responsibilities (running the government phone system, for instance) have been stripped away.
Another PAB overhaul by Ms. Redford, who has spent her first days as Premier shaking up the status quo, could most acutely mean a change in oil sands messaging at a time when the government is fighting environmental critics to get major pipeline projects approved. Some in industry say a change in messaging is exactly what’s required.
“It’s got to be more authentic, genuine, science-based and values-based about what people want to know about, what their concerns are,” said one energy industry stalwart with deep Tory ties, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And not just PR. We can’t just do PR.”
The oil sands’ top industry group said changing the PAB wouldn’t hurt the energy sector. “Won’t see a lot of impact from where I stand,” said Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
There are also concerns that PAB staffers assigned to ministers go beyond their government duty and do partisan work while collecting a public salary.
“A lot of communications a minister does is political. The directors, honestly, they’re doing some of the political communications on the side, sneaky,” a former PAB staffer said. “They know they shouldn’t but then you get caught in a trap.”
As such, the PAB allows power to be centralized in the Premier’s office.
“Klein used it as a way of controlling his ministers,” NDP Leader Brian Mason said. “It’s not objective or independent enough in terms of the information. It not only communicates a government message – it communicates a Progressive Conservative message.”
With a desire for change, a pall cast by years of spin and an indifferent industry, the NDP, Liberal and Wildrose opposition parties would all overhaul or do away with the agency. “We have to stop wasting Albertans’ hard-earned tax dollars spinning government failures. Just fix the problem and let the results speak for themselves,” Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said.
For all its communications efforts at home and abroad, the PAB is reluctant to talk about itself. Several interview requests left with PAB managing director Lee Funke and Kathy Lazowski, executive director of strategic communications, weren’t returned.