In May, 2018, a year before Jason Kenney became Premier of Alberta, he gave a rousing speech at his United Conservative Party’s first annual meeting. He called the gathering the biggest political convention in Alberta history, and the crowd was boisterous. There were shouts of “Go get ’em, Jason!”
The speech contained much of what Mr. Kenney has put into action since winning office. Among his promises was a red-meat plan for a muscular “fight back strategy” for Alberta. Mr. Kenney would create “a rapid response war room” to “rebut every lie told by the green left,” going after political opponents and “foreign-funded special interests.”
The war room opened two months ago. Even as the government cut back spending elsewhere, it found $120-million over four years to fund what it dubbed the Canadian Energy Centre. Mr. Kenney’s first budget last fall outlined an “assertive strategy” for the war room, whose “success will bolster the energy sector, get Albertans back to work and increase [provincial] revenues.”
The centre has been an embarrassing flop from the start. It has lurched from pillar to post. On its debut, its logo was discovered to have been plagiarized. The first public opponent the war room took on was the Medicine Hat News – yes, that long-time enemy of all things Albertan. And a splashy video on YouTube began with the lamest of arguments: “Canadian oil and gas makes our world better. It just does.” Well, then, case closed! The war room later took the video down.
Most of the centre’s money is coming from cash raised by Alberta’s industrial carbon tax. That money is supposed to go to environmental innovations, not poorly conceived propaganda.
Worst of all, the war room was designed to pass itself off as somehow separate from its political masters. On Twitter and YouTube, there is no indication it is a government operation. A note on funding is buried on the website. The war room’s spinners have interviewed people while claiming to be reporters.
It is, in short, a political PR operation dressed up in journalist-face. It’s an agency of government, masquerading as an independent news organization. That is wrong.
It also isn’t working. At all.
In the boxing ring of Alberta versus oil’s opponents, the war room has been pummelling itself. It has drawn little attention online beyond mockery. The latest self-inflicted wound came last week.
Attempting to rebut a piece in The New York Times about the oil sands and skepticism among financiers, the war room decided to attack the journalistic credibility of the Times itself. It tweeted that the newspaper has a “particular beef with Alberta” and “they aren’t the most dependable source.” The tweets went on to say the Times’ “track record is very dodgy” and it has been “called out for anti-Semitism countless times."
The tweets were deleted and the centre’s CEO apologized.
The centre is not salvageable. It should be closed.
Beyond a lust to battle perceived enemies, it remains unclear why Mr. Kenney felt this was the right strategy. Was the goal to delegitimize the mainstream media? Or, having created a story about Alberta being under attack from nefarious outside forces, did Mr. Kenney feel he had to convince voters he was battling those forces?
There’s nothing wrong with a government communicating with citizens. That’s its job. The Alberta government, like its peers across the country, has a huge crew of people doing marketing, media relations and communications. They pump out press releases, studies, tweets, Facebook posts and videos. Ministers regularly hold press conferences. As Premier, Mr. Kenney is one of the most quoted public figures in Canada.
But when governments get their message out, they have to do so as transparently as possible. That means speaking for themselves. Mr. Kenney hardly needs others to do his talking for him; he is rather adept at getting his point of view across. The Alberta Good News Network? Not so much.
There’s an old adage in the PR business: Don’t make yourself the story. The government of Alberta has every reason and every right to want to get its message out there. Just do it honestly, and above board.
Mr. Kenney should shutter the false front that is the Canadian Energy Centre. Spend the money on something that will better serve Alberta, and Albertans.