Blog | October 27, 2011

Public Affairs Bureau continues to shape the conversation

By Suzy Thompson, Fast Forward WeeklyThe Public Affairs Bureau (PAB) may be the most important provincial government agency you’ve never heard of. Originating in 1952 as the Publicity Bureau, its role is to facilitate internal and public government communications and to promote Alberta, primarily for economic development. As such, the PAB is intended to be a non-partisan relay office, setting up microphones at press conferences, fixing the links on government websites, forwarding press releases.Naturally, an agency that burns through in excess of $14 million every year will find other things to do. Since the Klein era, the PAB has earned a reputation as the propaganda arm of the Alberta government, and of the Progressive Conservative Party.Without specifically mentioning the PAB, Premier Alison Redford has stressed she wants a more transparent government. She and her cabinet proclaim public engagement, sharing information and an open decision-making process as priorities.In July, Frank Work, Alberta’s outgoing information and privacy commissioner, wrote an open letter advising the new government on how to be less evasive, and why.“It is inexplicable why the Government of Alberta has been so slow in getting on board with open government,” he said. “There are lots of skeletons in lots of closets. There are lots of people who would rather not have their role in making or influencing decisions known.”Nevertheless, Work wrote, these are not legitimate reasons to withhold public information. He advised the new leader to instruct ministers to release information freely, rather than guard it with the distrust for the public’s comprehension that has afflicted previous cabinets. Despite the candor of Work’s op-ed in the Edmonton Journal he declined to be interviewed for this article.Charles Rusnell has been an investigative journalist in Alberta since 1995. Currently at the CBC, he spent 13 years writing about political affairs for the Edmonton Journal. Rusnell says his 13 years reporting on government affairs has been marked by the PAB’s interference with every aspect of government communications.“Members of the PAB will go right down to the legislative reporters and try to spin them on stories,” he says. “They answer questions on behalf of ministers, which is not allowed anywhere else.…It’s structured in such a way that you’ll have the PAB person who literally has an office right next to the minister and reports through a separate channel of communications right to the premier’s office. They refuse to let you speak to the minister.”Rusnell will not speak to PAB staffers on political issues, but the consequence when he doesn’t speak to the PAB is often that he won’t get to speak to anyone.Public Interest Alberta executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon says the situation arose because former premier Ralph Klein, previously a journalist, understood the power of information. He saw the relatively blasé PAB as a tool for controlling government information from his desk. “In order for him to control the message he needed to control the messengers,” says Moore-Kilgannon.Yet Klein’s funding cuts hit the PAB along with most other ministries. When he took office in 1992, PAB spending was $12.4 million. Between 1993 and 1998 it fell 28 per cent, and staffing was reduced by 34 per cent. It declined every year until 1999. Only within the past 10 years has funding surged again to 18.5 million in 2008 from approximately $9 million in 1999, and now sits at $14 million.Even though funding appears to have been restored gradually, the PAB’s critics charge Klein knew how to make a centralized and very tightly controlled machine from a leaner bureau.They also say the problem is exacerbated by the blurring of the line between Conservative party interests and those of a nominally non-partisan government. The inability to separate the two is deeply entrenched because the same party has formed the government for 41 consecutive years. Rusnell believes that because the government changes in other provinces, it is difficult for bureaucracy support for one party to become established. The size and budget of the PAB give the Tories a huge advantage when the PAB is utilized to toe the party line.“It’s pretty obvious that it makes it very difficult for opposition parties to get the message out, because they just don’t have the money or the staff,” he says. All of Alberta’s other parties have stated they would overhaul or even eliminate the PAB if in power.Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson says the government has hamstrung opposition parties in the relative sum their elected officials are allotted for communications. He estimates his party, with four elected members, has a communications budget of about $250,000.Rather than giving other parties more, he believes the government should have much less; government communications only cost $14 million because of partisan advertising. The PAB received $7 million in addition to its regular budget this year for the province’s rebranding initiative. Anderson points to this as a “classic example of party advertising.”He says public service announcements about health or safety are legitimate, but paid ads about party policy is not. The Conservative’s ought to be paying for those, not the taxpayers.Change could be coming in light of Redford’s promises to improve government transparency. However, after three weeks as premier she has already made mistakes that call her commitment into question.The uncontested appointment of Gary Mar to a $250,000 government post in Hong Kong, the two-day legislative session and installing senior PAB staff to the premier’s office, including her new communications director Jay O’Neill, all echo unpopular backroom decisions made by previous governments.Public Interest Alberta has met with the premier to discuss issues it believes should be among the government’s priorities. However, he says Albertans must wait to see what changes Redford is willing to enact.“Changing the culture of the government that’s been in there 41 years, and the bureaucracy that’s been so entrenched into that way of thinking, is going to be very challenging,” he says.PAB and government representatives did not return requests for comment.By Suzy Thompson, Fast Forward Weekly

This article was published in Fast Forward Weekly on October 27, 2011. Read the full article on the Fast Forward Weekly website.