The upbeat strains of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” bleed out of Room 512 and echo through the five floors of the Alberta Legislature. It’s early March, and the progressive Conservative team is preparing for the spring sitting of the Legislature with its annual pep rally on the top floor. But as ministerial assistants and communications directors mingle with government secretaries in the cavernous committee room, for the first time in 14 years of tradition there’s a marked difference. The premier who enters through the dark-stained oak sliding doors is not Ralph Klein.
Steady Eddie Stelmach looks a bit startled as he strides into the packed hall, like he didn’t really expect all this. Brown’s lyrics blare as Alberta’s 13th premier makes his way across the ornate chamber, shaking hands with the civil servants and political staff in his path. his media relations director, Tom Olsen, a shaggy-haired former Calgary Herald columnist and rock singer, warms up the crowd with a few words. Ron Glen, Stelmach’s former executive assistant turned chief of staff, follows with expressions of gratitude for the hard work of the staff. At the back of the room, several veteran communications directors look up from their BlackBerries in amusement. One catches the attention of a colleague and rolls his eyes.
Stelmach, a four-term MLA and veteran cabinet minister, offers a few words of thanks and encouragement. he tells everyone to remember that in the midst of the chaos and hard work of the coming sitting they should remember to have fun. There’s more hand-shaking and the room clears. It’s all over less than 15 minutes after it began.
The annual presitting pep rally was the brainchild of Klein’s chief of staff, Rod Love. Like much of what Klein and Love started together, it has survived into the fourth coming of the Alberta Tories. Edward Michael Stelmach, 56, was sworn in on December 14 after a surprising come-from-behind victory in the Tory leadership race. he campaigned on a promise to do “What’s Right For Alberta,” and has vowed to bring more openness and accountability to government. he has backed up his campaign pledges with the introduction of a bill to create a lobbyist registry, and another to toughen up conflict- of-interest rules for members of the Legislature and top aides.
Steady Eddie Stelmach looks a bit startled as he strides into the packed hall, like he didn’t really expect all this.
The premier’s relationship with the media, however, is still a work in progress. Although he’s been the MLA for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville since 1993, the soft-spoken Ukrainian farmer seldom sought or held the spotlight in his four cabinet posts—agriculture, transportation, infrastructure and inter- governmental affairs. He cut his teeth in municipal politics as a county reeve, school board trustee and hospital board member, where his gentlemanly manner and beaming smile assured him of office as long as he desired it.
Even during last fall’s leadership campaign, Stelmach ran for the most part under the media radar. When he drew more than 1,000 people to a $45-per-person breakfast at Edmonton’s Northlands AgriCom early in the campaign, media reported upon it after the fact—no one had been there to witness the event. After shocking Albertans with his December 2 second- ballot victory over front-runners Jim Dinning and Ted Morton, Stelmach was swept into the premier’s office without anyone waiting in the wings to handle his communications. He relied on Klein’s staff, and particularly Klein’s key spokeswoman, Marisa Etmanski, to speak on his own behalf for several months until he could select his own personnel and get them up to speed. The transition plowed into turbulence within mere weeks when the media got wind of the premier’s plans to hold $5,000 private sessions with anyone who wanted to help him pay off his campaign debts. Facing a storm of criticism, Stelmach immediately cancelled the sessions, but went ahead with social fundraisers that supporters paid $500 each to attend. Etmanski says she was impressed with Stelmach’s handling of the situation—his first real media test. “He wanted to deal with it right away,” she says. “There was no question in his mind about what had to happen.”
Stelmach finally chose his communications team in January, shocking the Legislature press gallery by snatching up two of the three political columnists covering the Legislature: Olsen as his media relations officer, and Edmonton Sun columnist Paul Stanway as his communications director.
Liberal Leader Kevin Taft found the choices appalling. “The fact he hired Tom Olsen and Paul Stanway just attests to the seamless relationship between the Tory government and too many news outlets and too many reporters. It’s a real threat to democracy when an independent media gets so close to the government that they can step back and forth from one side to the other. It makes a mockery of journalistic independence.”
Both Olsen and Stanway point out that many provincial governments and even federal governments have hired politic- al journalists to handle their communications. Both adamantly reject allegations they were using their columns to audition for their jobs. “I was not angling for a job in government,” says Olsen. “I had a great job with the Calgary Herald. I never thought I would leave journalism. I think what the premier’s office was looking for was people who knew the media from the other side.” Stanway, a self-described small-c conservative, boasts that he often “whacked” the Alberta Tories for not being conservative enough. He says the job offer from Stelmach came out of the blue and that he had been pursued by two other leadership candidates to work on their campaigns but had turned them down. “It’s fair to say there’s some animosity because of Tom and I both joining the premier’s office. Some of our colleagues managed the transition better than others. Obviously that was quite a surprise to see two members of the press gallery go in one fell swoop, but I think it’s settling down and I am hoping people get used to the new set-up.”
One of the new communications team’s first steps was to reduce media access to Stelmach from what had been the norm under Klein. The daily 3 p.m. press conferences following the Legislature’s question period were cut back to just two a week. And they were much shorter. Stanway says the change stems from the Premier’s decision to eliminate evening sittings at the Legislature. The shorter days mean the sittings will last weeks longer than under the Klein regime. “The concern is if you make the premier available every single day from February through June, that’s an enormous chunk of his calendar,” says Stanway. “Quite frankly, he’s got a government to run.” He suggests reporters could, in the long run, get more access to Stelmach than they did to Klein, because the Legislature sits three to four weeks longer. Reporters are skeptical.
The Klein regime placed a lot of emphasis on communications. Rod Love says it was the top priority. “Every morning for the 14 years Klein was premier, job one for his staff was the media briefing—not an economics briefing, not a price-of-oil briefing, not a what-are-the-Liberals-doing brief- ing. It was what are the current stories out there today, so we can effectively say to the people of Alberta ‘Relax, I know what’s going on. Here’s what your government is doing.’”
Klein’s communications director also sent out a daily bulletin advising ministers what they should say, if asked, about the issues of the day, Love says. “Nobody had any excuse to be out there saying different things about the issues.” It became apparent that Stelmach’s communications team wasn’t doing that when Finance Minister Lyle Oberg, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister guy Boutilier and the Premier sent out different messages about what they wanted to see in the March 19 federal budget concerning the national equalization program. During question period, the opposition parties grilled the Tories on the “confusion” and “mixed mes- sages,” and the Premier had to assure the media that there was no rift in his cabinet. Some reporters have not been impressed with Stelmach’s new communications team.
“They are still finding their way and I don’t think hiring ex-reporters was the way to go,” laments CKUA news supervisor Ian Gray, a veteran member of the press gallery. Stelmach often leaves press conferences with questions still being fired at his back. Sometimes he hasn’t been briefed on current issues and frequently the sessions are so short and the answers so vague that reporters can’t find a sliver of new information to warrant a story. Recently, a Calgary columnist was seen heading home just as the premier’s end-of- week press conference was about to start—a move that would have been risky when Klein was around because journalists never knew what headlines would spill out. “I guess we were spoiled under Ralph,” sighs Gray.
“He set the bar pretty high.” Mark Lisac, who has written two books about the Klein gov-ernment and now publishes a Legislature newsletter called Insight into Government, says it probably isn’t fair to compare the media abilities of the two premiers, because Klein, as the former mayor of Calgary, was not only a veteran at handling media, but was also well known in the province when he stepped into the premier’s office. “Stelmach has been here since 1993, but he’s quiet and he’s still establishing his personality with voters. He’s seen as honest, but he has to establish his credibility. But if you can’t deliver stories in the form that the media can easily use, you’re not going to control the media as much as Klein could.”
“The fact he hired Tom Olsen and Paul Stanway just attests to the seamless relationship between the Tory government and too many reporters. It’s a real threat to democracy.” –Kevin Taft
Stelmach often appears to be thinking as he speaks, says Lisac. “He has a tendency to stop and start and drift off. He seems to have difficulty encapsulating a thought in a few words.” In the media vernacular, it’s called “giving good quote.” Stelmach doesn’t have the knack. Lisac says that rather than relying on speeches and press conferences to boost his stat- ure with Albertans, Stelmach will have to deliver on programs and policy—areas in which Klein admitted being weak. Lisac says Stelmach also shouldn’t be criticized too much for reducing his exposure to the media, since it’s unlikely that any other political leader devotes as much time to the media as Klein did during his years in power.
Stanway contends the previous Tory regime morphed into “the Ralph show.” “There was a lot of off-the-cuff policy- making, which is not the way this premier wants to operate,” he says. “It was hugely entertaining and great for the media. Is it necessarily the best way to run a government? Probably not.” While Klein would often blurt out government plans before they had gone through the process of committees, caucus and cabinet, Stelmach will be more respectful of the process, says Stanway. “It will make it less entertaining for the media, but it will provide Albertans with co-ordinated, thoughtful government.”
While Klein had a genuine gift of gab, what irked rival party leaders most was his structuring of the massive, $14-million, 115-member Public Affairs Bureau (PAB) into what they claim has become a propaganda arm of the Progressive Conservative Party. Queen’s University political science professor Jonathan Rose says Alberta was among the first provinces to create a centralized public relations organization that reported to a premier. “Government always wants to control the way they are framed in the media,” he says. “That’s not new. What was new was the degree the provincial government had centralized and institutionalized that control in the office of the premier.” When Klein reorganized the PAB to report directly to him, he created a sophisticated communications network that enabled him to know what the media were planning to write about him or his government even before they wrote it, says Lisac. “No reporter can call any civil servant—and there are more than 20,000 of them—without the call having to be reported to communications staff and all the PAB reporting it on to the premier’s office,” explains Lisac. “The whole organization in government became a spider web where every vibration is being felt in the premier’s office.”
In Alberta, each ministry has a communications director and a staff of public affairs officers. But the director reports to PAB head Leanne Stangeland, who reports to the premier’s office through executive council deputy minister Ron Hicks. Whenever there’s a cabinet shuffle, the PAB director shuffles the communications directors as well. Sometimes they stay with their minister and go to his new department; sometimes they stay with the department; sometimes they are sent to a new department with a new minister. All communications directors are civil servants hired through open competitions—as opposed to Stanway and Olsen, political appointees whose jobs hang on Stelmach’s political coattails. While Stanway and Olsen are expected to respond to political issues, communications directors are theoretically only responsible for explaining the policies and programs to Albertans through the media.
But opposition parties view the PAB as a Tory propaganda machine and don’t see much difference between what the premier’s communications staff does and what the PAB communications directors do. Liberal Leader Kevin Taft has often referred to Alberta’s public affairs bureau as being the equivalent of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ TASS news agency. He says he would break up the PAB—which he calls “an insidious organization”—or build a wall between it and the politics of government. “I think it’s inappropriate that the entire communications system be politicized. Those people are supposed to be public servants, not servants of the Progressive Conservative Party.”
New Democratic Party leader Brian Mason too has been critical of the PAB. He accuses bureau writers of authoring attack lines for former Deputy Premier Shirley McClellan to use to assault his party during the mad-cow crisis. “We obtained copies of briefing notes for Shirley McClellan, produced by the PAB, that gave her lines to attack the NDP. The Public Affairs Bureau is crafting messages to attack other parties and that clearly crosses the line into political involvement.” PAB boss Stangeland and Stelmach’s communications director Stanway both deny that political lines are crossed. They contend that while the premier’s communications office can and does make political statements, the PAB is limited solely to communicating the business of government to Albertans. “Kevin Taft says there’s no demarcation, but there is clearly one and it comes up all the time,” says Stanway. “I have only been on the job less than two months but it’s a constant theme. They don’t want to be politicized. Nobody asks the communications directors how they voted. If there was a change in government, they would be doing the same stuff for somebody else.” He suggests it is only because the Tories have been in power for 36 years that the PAB has been branded an agency of the party.
But here’s where the picture gets murky. Communications directors also often speak for their ministers when they are unavailable—even in defence of contentious policy or programs. Lisac recalls that under previous premiers Peter Lougheed and Don Getty, reporters were directed to ministers’ executive assistants for comment when a minister wasn’t available. Executive assistants (EAs) are political appointees and not members of the civil service, although they are also paid out of the taxpayers’ purse. Lisac blames the media in part for allowing communications directors to speak on behalf of ministers. “I thought the media were always a little too accepting of this. I would have been happier to see them refrain from accepting political statements from communications directors.” Some reporters refuse to quote the directors, but it often means they have to hold their stories until they can catch up with a cabinet minister in person—some ministers don’t return phone calls from reporters.
“He’s still establishing his personality with voters… If you can’t deliver stories in the form that the media can easily use, you’re not going to control the media as much as Klein could.” –Mark Lisac
Love says it was always the plan to shift the burden of handling media from the political strategists to the communications experts. “It wasn’t written down, but it was certainly the plan,” Love says. “We tried to let the EAs concentrate on the politics in the department, in the constituency, and in the province and not worry about the 20 calls a day from media.”
He also candidly admits the communication director’s job is political. “We expected members of the PAB who were going to be directors of communications in a political office were going to have to understand the political side of the ledger. If you aren’t comfortable with that, stay in the PAB and go write news releases for Safe Highway Week. But it was understood that if you were going to be a director of communications in a minister’s office, there was going to be a political element to it.” opposition parties are deluding themselves if they think it can be any other way, says Love. “The Alberta Legislature is a purely political environment. If the opposition thinks there are clear distinctions and lines that are simple to follow, it shows their naïveté.”
Although the government maintains that the PAB is apolitical, some communications directors showed their Tory stripes during the recent leadership race when they took vacation time to work as volunteers on campaigns, and one even spoke publicly on behalf of a candidate. To confuse the situation even further, the Premier’s communications office has seconded a member of the PAB to speak on behalf of the Premier when Olsen and Stanway are not available. So where is the line? And why do out-of-town reporters who dial into press conferences with the premier or cabinet ministers discover that the phone connection operated by the PAB goes dead before the opposition party leaders get up to the podium to respond?
Ironically, some government MLAs may despise the PAB even more than opposition MLAs do, but for the opposite reason. Tory mLAs don’t understand why the PAB hasn’t taken a more political stance, particularly during the 2004 election when their party lost seats. They wonder why the PAB won’t provide them with speeches and materials for their political battles in their own constituencies. They would like the public affairs bureau to be much more politicized.
A three-member panel chaired by former Lougheed press secretary Ron Liepert, now a Calgary MLA, reviewed the operation of the PAB in 2005, but its never released recommendations met with so much resistance from Klein and his cabinet that they never made it off the page. Insiders said the report recommended the PAB be broken up into ministerial departments, or “silos,” with the communications directors reporting to their ministers rather than the PAB director. They say such a move would inevitably have created an even more politicized communications regime. “It just didn’t make sense to split up all these people into 23 different departments instead of one that works together as a team,” said one opponent of the plan. “That was the thing that killed it.”
Despite the criticisms of the PAB, both Stanway and Stangeland contend there are no immediate plans to change the way it does business. “Premier Stelmach said when he came in that he valued the communications function,” says Stangeland, who has held her post since 2005. “I don’t think he intends to make any significant changes.”
While the PAB will continue to be a target for the opposition, some people, both inside and outside government, suggest the power of the PAB as a political tool of government has been exaggerated. Former Alberta NDP communications director Simon Kiss, who has been studying the PAB and the Alberta Progressive Conservative government’s communications for his doctorate in political studies at Queen’s University, says he launched his investigation expecting to prove Taft’s assertions that the bureau has become a party propaganda machine, but he is discovering that the politicization of the civil service is not unique to Alberta and probably has had significantly less impact on media coverage of the Alberta government than the considerable media savvy of Klein did.
“My own sense is that Kevin Taft is making a bit of a bogeyman out of the PAB,” says Kiss. “I don’t know if it’s as all- powerful and able to manipulate communications and news media as he feels it is. I’m starting to find out that the story of Klein’s relationship with the media is more about Klein’s ability and willingness to be accessible to the media on a daily basis.”
“We obtained copies of briefing notes… The Public Affairs Bureau is crafting messages to attack other parties, and that clearly crosses the line into political involvement.” –Brian Mason
Stelmach has not attempted to emulate Klein on the public relations front. He opted not to continue Klein’s tradition of making an annual state-of-Alberta TV address in January. But his pledge to operate his government with integrity and transparency could come back to haunt him, says Love. “Whenever you hang a lantern on what your top priorities are, there’s a great blowback if you fall down on one of those issues.” It has already started. The opposition already cries hypocrisy every time the Stelmach government refuses to immediately release a report or respond to a question period query.
But Stelmach’s communications team insists the new premier can walk the talk. “You’re really putting your reputation on the line when you highlight accountability and transparency, but he’s fully aware of that and he’s prepared to live with it,” says Stanway.
Olsen warns people not to be so quick to judge Stelmach’s communications prowess. “He is a good guy and an honest guy—but more importantly, he is a guy with ideas. People underestimated him during the leadership and people are still underestimating him.”
Darcy Henton has been covering Alberta politics since 1994 and is a past president of the Alberta Legislature press gallery.