Blog | September 25, 2015

By Mariam Ibrahim, Edmonton JournalWhen the Alberta Progressive Conservatives were in power, Larry Booi would commonly find himself at demonstrations outside the Alberta legislature and the occasional sit-in at ministers’ offices,With Premier Rachel Notley’s New Democrats at the helm, the longtime fixture in the province’s progressive circles and current chair of Public Interest Alberta is politely invited to the table to give the government his views.“We are in a very different situation,” says Booi. Previously, advocacy groups like Public Interest Alberta and Friends of Medicare were treated with something between benign indifference and naked contempt, he says. Not so any longer.“It’s taking some getting used to, to be honest.”When Rachel Notley turned her fledgling four-member opposition caucus into Alberta’s first New Democrat government this past May, toppling the Progressive Conservatives’ four-decade stranglehold on power, Canada’s political sphere was stunned.It sent a whole network of government relations experts, lobbyists and political insiders into a tailspin. Who held the power now? Who were these New Democrats – the vast majority of whom were inexperienced political newbies – and what would it mean in a province where it paid – sometimes literally – to have an in with the Tories?The rush to identify the new power brokers started immediately, as people flooded the NDP’s election night victory party at a downtown Edmonton hotel, Booi says.“We noticed a phenomenon called orange-washing, and it was people suddenly putting on orange shirts,” he says, chuckling. He recalls spotting a Tory insider stroll through the doors, an orange shirt on her back. Someone asked why she’d be at an NDP victory party.“She said, ‘Well, I’m a lobbyist and this is what I do,’ ” Booi says.He and others in progressive circles, including Dave Cournoyer, who writes a popular blog about Alberta politics, found their phones ringing in the days after the May 5 election.“A number of us were getting calls from people saying, ‘Look, we don’t have a single contact in there, can you tell us at least who to phone?’ ” Booi says.

Jockeying for access

Consultancy and lobbying firms — accustomed to dealing with successive Tory governments — were in a mad scramble to find new contacts inside the new government. After all, consultants and lobbyists are hired by businesses and organizations precisely for their connections in government hallways and their ability to navigate the back channels of power.“A lot of lobbyists built their business model by being well-connected to the Progressive Conservative party and … when you have a party that’s in power for 44 years, that’s a good business model for 44 years. But that currency doesn’t really have much value in the current political situation we have now,” says Cournoyer, who also works as a communications advisor for the United Nurses of Alberta.The firms quickly moved to scoop up NDP strategists and advisers in order to establish access to the new government.Less than a month after the election results were in, Alberta-based firm Impact Consulting announced it had hired Brookes Merritt, a former director of communications to the New Democrats when it consisted only of Notley and her current senior-most cabinet minister, Brian Mason. A news release announcing the hire touted Merritt’s “strong relationships with the Alberta NDP caucus.”Navigator — a self-styled high stakes crisis communications firm whose principals have been intimately involved with Tory campaigns — moved within weeks to snap up Sally Housser, who served as Notley’s election press secretary. Hers is the only biography on the firm’s website that makes any reference to the NDP, outlining her long history working with the party both federally and at the provincial level. Housser has since registered as a government lobbyist.A cadre of former MLAs and politicos now make up Alberta Counsel, a consulting firm started by former Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw and a past Wildrose executive director, Jonathan Westcott. Among the firm’s senior advisers is Leo Piquette — a former NDP MLA and father of current NDP MLA Colin Piquette.These new hires are largely an attempt to help consulting firms speak the language of the NDP in a province where one party ruled for 44 years, along the way engraining what Calgary pollster Janet Brown calls the “Tory industrial complex.”“I think it remains to be seen whether that’s going to be a successful strategy for these firms, because the NDP railed against the sort of old boys network and the decision-making on golf courses and some of those stereotypical things that defined the PC era,” says Brown, who also works as a consultant.A month after the election, Canadian Strategies Group proclaimed it had hired veteran New Democrat and former B.C cabinet minister Moe Sihota as a senior consultant, along with Ken Georgetti, former president of the Canadian Labour Congress.The firm’s co-founder, Hal Danchilla — a fixture in Alberta’s government relations sector — says the hires weren’t a just a consequence of the province’s New Democrats taking power in May.“They’re both extremely experienced people. Both of them have had incredible careers in shaping public policy,” Danchilla says. Sihota has particular expertise in the values that underpin the perspective the province’s new government holds, he added.“He certainly has an understanding of where an NDP government may like to go and clearly I didn’t possess that, and so I needed to have somebody that could explain to me and educate me about the philosophical differences,” Danchilla says.The current context is “a little left of centre from what I’ve been used to,” says Danchilla. “It was more about educating me and allowing our clients to have access to that wealth of information.”Danchilla says he hasn’t yet seen a difference in how the new government interacts with lobbyists.“We haven’t seen much of a change, to be honest. They’ve been open and certainly accommodating where possible,” he says. “But we realize they had a summer where they had an awful lot to learn.”

Trading sit-ins for sit-downs

With a progressive government in power, organizations like Public Interest Alberta have had to rethink their approach to advocacy. Alberta’s New Democrats have made it clear they want to hear from the types of civil society groups so many members of their government were once affiliated with. When Jobs Minister Lori Sigurdson launched two days of consultation on the government’s plan to usher in a $15 minimum wage, it invited groups hostile to the idea on one day and groups supportive of the idea on the other, Booi notes.“I don’t think that this new government will make the mistake that the old government did, and that is to just listen to people who tell them what they want to hear,” he says. “I think that this new government is going to listen to everybody.”Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith says there’s no question his membership expects to have more influence on an NDP government, especially given the strained relationship labour relations has taken in the province in recent years.“We’ve always had a little bit of influence. Building relationships with government is fundamental to work that I’ve done over the last few years. We had to take that influence outside of normal procedures, if you like, and take it on to the streets.,” Smith says, in reference to a controversial wildcat strike by jail guards outside the Edmonton remand centre a few years back. “We don’t want to have to exercise that level of influence again.”Booi says it’s inevitable public advocacy groups like his will hold more influ
ence on policies like minimum wage increases and a progressive tax with the New Democrats in power.“For two reasons – number one, the government shares some of those values. And number two, the government has suggested a lot of these policies themselves,” Booi says.It doesn’t hurt that people like Sigurdson and Finance Minister Joe Ceci are former Public Interest Alberta members, but Booi says the government’s openness to hearing from a broader section of civil society groups isn’t a consequence of those personal relationships.“I don’t myself think it’s the personalities and connections that are actually going to make much of a difference,” he says. “That kind of cronyism was a big part of the previous problem where the only people who could get through the door were Conservative supporters and they had to go through a phalanx of government relations experts who were former Tories.”A spokeswoman for the premier’s office says the Notley government’s priority is to hear from “regular Albertans” on the issues that affect them.“We prefer to hear from front-line workers, families and organizations about their concerns, over meetings with lobbyists,” Cheryl Oates said in an email.But a government can’t do away with lobbyists altogether, and a quick search of the provincial lobbyist registry reveals several new filings by NDP-affiliated consultants now vying for an audience with the premier and her cabinet.“Every consultant, no matter their previous affiliations, must go through the same channels to access the government,” Oates said. “That means those who may have personal connections with members of executive council must still go through the support staff with their requests and those requests don’t receive any special priority — they are weighed against other requests of the same nature.”

New team, new rules?

Mount Royal University political scientist and commentator Duane Bratt says it may be too early to tell just how the New Democrats will manage its new power and who will become marked as the behind-the-scenes brokers.“The question is whether the rules have changed or if it’s just the people who have changed. At this stage, it’s clear that the people have changed. The access that people used to have to the government is completely gone and they’re trying to figure out who these new people are — and that’s still the biggest question,” Bratt says.Some of the power players behind the legislature’s curtain are more obvious than others. Notley’s chief of staff, veteran NDP strategist and one-time federal NDP leadership hopeful Brian Topp, is easily among the most powerful member of the premier’s inner circle. There are others, too, including deputy chief of staff Adrienne King and John Heaney, a longtime NDP adviser who, while technically part of the civil service as a deputy minister in executive council, was initially brought in to Alberta as a transition team strategist. Now Heaney is in charge of policy and planning, guiding government ministries towards their policy goals. Then there is the team of chiefs of staff— mostly plucked from elsewhere in Canada — who wield significant power in ministers’ offices.But as pollster Brown points out, while Alberta has seen wholesale change on the political level, the province’s civil service has largely stayed the same.“So a lot of the relationships that would have been important to organizations still exist. They just exist at the bureaucratic level,” Brown says. “It may not be as much of a ‘starting over’ as some people want to make it out to be.”Indeed, Richard Dicerni, the senior-most civil servant and arguably one of the most powerful unelected officials in the government— has been kept on in his role as deputy minister of executive council.But still, the old political relationships and the access that accompanied them have all but vanished. That changing landscape could help to open doors for organizations that may not have enjoyed an audience with the former government but still has expertise to share, says Brown.“And I guess relationships are being rebuilt, but for this brief period of time, it’s not who you know that matters anymore,” she says. “This is really an opportunity to show government what you know, because it’s no longer about who you know.”Bratt says the changing makeup of the province’s agencies, boards and commissions will be one surefire way of measuring how Alberta’s New Democrats approach government.The Progressive Conservative government was long criticized for stacking the province’s arms’-length entities, such as university boards, with card-carrying Tories, the bag men who raked in the cash for the party and senior executives. In some cases boards were made up entirely of Tory party members.Whether the NDP government eliminates sole-sourced contracts altogether— which were a common target for accusations of Tory cronyism going back years — will be another indication of change in how government conducts its business.The NDP’s quick move to ban corporations and union donations to political parties signalled the new government wants to correct an imbalance in the electoral process, Bratt added.“At the very least, this is a major shift for Alberta.”With files from Graham [email protected]/mariamdenaRead the story on the Edmonton Journal's website