Public business or propaganda?

: The Alberta Public Affairs Bureau is a monstrous propaganda machine serving the Tory party at public expense, critics charge. Defenders say it provides valuable information to concerned Albertans
Edmonton Journal Sun Aug 1 2004 Page: D3 Section: Sunday Reader Byline: Charles Rusnell Dateline: EDMONTON Source: The Edmonton Journal

A manual of "key messages" produced exclusively for Alberta Progressive Conservative MLAs by the Public Affairs Bureau verges on propaganda, is a partisan misuse of taxpayers' money and provides the governing party with an unfair advantage, a panel of political scientists says. "This manual is a straight-up abuse of taxpayers' money because it is money that is being used to communicate what the Tory party is doing, not what the government is doing," said Jonathan Rose, a Queen's University professor. "That is absolutely false," said Marisa Etmanski, press secretary to Premier Ralph Klein, the minister responsible for the Public Affairs Bureau. "It is what the government of Alberta is doing, what the departments are doing in conjunction with the people who work in the departments and the politicians because that is the sort of system we have set up in this province, and in this country." The bureau also maintains a website exclusively for Tory MLAs -- at which they can get updated "talking points". It requires a confidential code to enter. It's not known how much the manual and website cost to produce and maintain.

The manual and the website provide more proof the line between the Tory party and what is supposed to be an apolitical bureaucracy has been eliminated by the Klein government, say the professors, who reviewed a copy of the confidential manual obtained by The Journal. "There is a line between public business and partisan business," said David Taras, a University of Calgary communications professor. "This is not only over the line, it is way over the line. In fact, there is no line and I mean a moral and ethical line. It's gone completely." Etmanski insisted there is a "total separation" between the Conservative party and the Public Affairs Bureau. She said neither the party, nor Klein, tells the bureau to produce the manual, which has been published for years and is updated annually. She acknowledged, however, that Gordon Turtle, the bureau's current head, was formerly the premier's communications director and is her boss. The Public Affairs Bureau produced this year's version of the manual in advance of the release of the government's budget in February during the legislature's spring sitting. The 184-page manual contains 20 sections of so-called "key messages" -- also called "talking points" in political parlance -- for every government department, from Aboriginal Affairs through Education and Environment, to Seniors and Sustainable Resources. The key messages are produced to ensure Tory MLAs and their spokespeople all make the same, unified statements to the media and to their constituents, which gives them maximum resonance with the public, the political scientists say. "These are sound bites for Tory candidates," said Janine Brodie, a University of Alberta political scientist. "That's all this is." While some sections are produced by bureau staff, others are produced by the ministers' executive assistants, who are partisan. "They're all wearing Tory blue," Taras said. "It's supposed to be non-partisan, but it's simply not. It's very clear that it is spin and torque, and on any given issue someone else could come up with different facts and different perspectives." Brodie said the manual is meant to prepare government MLAs for the legislature sittings, public meetings and media interviews. "The messages are overwhelmingly positive," she said. "The manual is a

political tool." Etmanski disagreed with the professors' assessment. "I'm saying the document is not political," she said. "It's government policy; it's government decisions." Etmanski said the information in the manual is objective and non-partisan because most of it comes from readily available public sources, such as government press releases and websites produced by the bureau. But she could not explain why only Tory MLAs have access to the manual and website, nor could she explain why a similar service isn't provided to opposition MLAs. "I think if they want this kind of information, it's as easily accessible," she said, "and so this kind of information (in the manual) is used by government MLAs to defend some of the policies of their own government and you're never going to get the opposition doing that sort of thing." Each political party in Alberta is given a budget for partisan research, communications and administration based on its number of elected MLAs. The Conservatives now hold 74 of the 83 legislature seats, the Liberals five and the New Democrats two, with two seats vacant. Combining the budgets of backbench Tory MLAs, the premier's office, the various ministers' offices and their communication staff, the Conservatives have access to nearly $25 million. By contrast, the Liberals have about $730,000 and the New Democrats about $300,000. The political scientists said that despite the Klein government's massive advantage in resources, it still uses the bureau, with its staff of more than 130 employees and its nearly $12-million budget, as if it were another arm of the PC party. This imbalance gives the Klein government an unfair advantage and stifles democracy in Alberta, the political scientists say. "It obviously gives a huge advantage to the governing party," Rose said. "One of the essences of democracy is the ability to criticize and have access to all the information that the government has, and this flies in the face of that. "It certainly dampens the whole spirit of democratic debate and serious opposition in Alberta. It also makes a mockery of any kind of openness in government."

Taras said the Klein government's exclusive access to the Public Affairs Bureau makes it nearly impossible for the opposition to do its job and elect more members. "How does the opposition work its way out from under that when the government has this huge communications machine, funded by taxpayers, that is constantly working to bury its message? It's an avalanche of information all on one side." Taras said with few resources, the opposition parties are hampered in exposing government misspending and policy weaknesses. "That in turn means they can't get the kind of media coverage they need to establish a profile. So that in turn affects the public's perception of how they're doing their job as opposition parties," Taras said. Peter McCormick, a University of Lethbridge political scientist, said the Klein government's blatant misuse of the Public Affairs Bureau underlines the danger to democracy of having one party in power for so long. The Conservatives have ruled Alberta for 34 years. "Governments always have an advantage, but our system in Alberta is designed to re-elect Tory governments and this is just one example of the way that works," McCormick said, adding that some ruling governments in Canada are sensitive to their advantage and make some attempts to be fair to opposition parties. "This government in Alberta would not be on that list," he said. Etmanski was offended by McCormick's assessment. "I think that is an insult to Albertans because Albertans are probably the smartest people in the country," she said, "and if they thought the government wasn't doing the right thing, they would vote them out." Several professors said Alberta Auditor General Fred Dunn should review the Public Affairs Bureau for its partisan use of taxpayers' money. McCormick doubted that would happen because provincial auditors general, unlike their federal counterpart, do not have a tradition of investigating the use of public money for partisan purposes. Dunn was provided with a copy of the manual. He declined comment, saying he was too busy to review the document.

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