Tag Archives: Stefan Baranski

Jim Prentice tells Albertans to strap on their seat belts

Premier Jim Prentice Alberta Leadership Race Vote

Jim Prentice scrums with the media after his victory speech on September 6, 2014.

“After two weeks with me as the premier, there will be no doubts in anyone’s minds that this a time of renewal and a time of change. Put your seat belts on.” – Jim Prentice speaking with Roger Kingkade and Rob Breakenridge on September 9, 2014 on News Talk 770.

Wearing your seat belt while driving in a motor vehicle is always a good idea, but in this context, it may not cure the political whiplash endured by Albertans over the past two years.

The interview was a rough start to a mixed week for Jim Prentice, who is in the midst of transitioning into the Premier’s office and is expected to be sworn-in next week. He had positive first meetings with Edmonton mayor Don Iveson and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. And his rounds of media interviews early in the week were an introduction to many Albertans who are unfamiliar with Mr. Prentice and a departure from his predecessor, who became notorious for avoiding the legislature press gallery.

If his first week of transitioning into the Premier’s Office is going smoothly, the same might not be the case for his first week as leader of the 43-year governing Progressive Conservative Party. Mr. Prentice is already having to deal with allegations about PC MLA Sohail Quadri’s role in accessing voting PIN numbers in last week’s leadership vote.

Cabinet Shuffle next week

Much of the mainstream media coverage this week focused on speculation that Mr. Prentice could appoint individuals from outside the legislature to what is expected to be a smaller provincial cabinet.

As the rumours fly, three names have been widely speculated as prospective outside appointments – AIMco CEO Leo DeBeaver, Conservative MP James Rajotte and former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel. Mr. Mandel is currently serving on Mr. Prentice’s transition team and endorsed his candidacy in the PC leadership race earlier this summer.

Alberta Progressive Conservative Party Politics

Progressive Conservative MLAs leaving a morning caucus meeting at Government House in March 2014.

It is expected that any cabinet ministers appointed from outside the Assembly would be required to run in by-elections alongside Mr. Prentice, who currently does not hold a seat in the Alberta Legislature.

As I wrote last week, appointing cabinet ministers from outside the Legislature is not entirely unheard of in Canadian politics but it does come with some risks. Take for example Quebec Premier Bernard Landry, who appointed David Levine as a junior health minister in 2002 only to see him lose a by-election shortly afterward. The defeated candidate resigned from cabinet the next day.

While he may choose to include new talent from outside the PC Caucus, Mr. Prentice will still need to choose the bulk of his cabinet ministers from inside the current PC caucus. And his picks became slimmer yesterday as former Energy minister Ken Hughes announced that he will not seek re-election as MLA for Calgary-West.

New Senior Staff

Mr. Prentice announced that former Liberal MLA Mike Percy will be his Chief of Staff and Patricia Misutka will be his Principal Secretary. Both could bring a stronger Edmonton-perspective to Calgarian Mr. Prentice’s inner circle and appear to be competent choices for the roles.

Dr. Percy is the former Dean of Business at the University of Alberta and served as the MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud from 1993 to 1997 (defeating rookie PC candidate Dave Hancock in 1993). He served as the Official Opposition Finance Critic for much of his time in the Legislature. It is suspected that Dr. Percy would have been appointed as Finance Minister if the Liberals, led by Laurence Decore, had won the 1993 election.

Ms. Misutka is the former Chief of Staff to Mr. Mandel and was one of four co-chairs of Mr. Prentice’s leadership campaign. After Mr. Mandel’s retirement, she worked as a Senior Advisor with the Canadian Strategy Group, a government relations company run by long-time PC Party insiders Hal Danchilla and Michael Lohner.

Redford staffer lands pipeline job

It appears that Alison Redford’s former communications director, Stefan Baranski, has landed a new job as Regional Director for Ontario at with TransCanada’s Energy East Pipeline project.

Albertans defend modest pensions, Redford staff defend Palm Springs flight

Rally for Pensions Alberta

Close to 2,000 Albertans gathered in Churchill Square on March 2, 2014 to rally for secure public sector pensions.

About 2,000 Albertans from every corner of the province braved the -33C windchill yesterday to defend their modest pension plans at a rally in Edmonton’s Churchill Square. Many municipal and provincial employees are concerned that Finance minister Doug Horner‘s proposed changes to Alberta’s public sector pension plans could impact their retirement security.

David Eggen Deron Bilous NDP MLA Alberta

NDP MLAs Deron Bilous and David Eggen show their support at yesterday’s rally.

Despite rhetoric about ‘gold-plated pension plans,’ the average full pension under the Local Authorities Pension Plan is only $15,000 per year.

Meanwhile, Premier Alison Redford is facing questions about another taxpayer funded flight on a government plane, this time from sunny Palm Springs, California.

After receiving a tip about a suspicious record in the Alberta Government Flight Manifests, I asked Ms. Redford on Twitter why a government plane flew empty to Palm Springs and returned to Calgary with her, her daughter and two members of her security detail onboard in April 2013.

David Climenhaga Laurie Blakeman Liberal Alberta MLA

Blogger David Climenhaga and Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman at yesterday’s rally.

Ms. Redford did not respond to my tweet, but her communications director Stefan Baranski did. He explained that the flight brought the premier back to Alberta from her vacation home in order to attend former premier Ralph Klein‘s memorial service.

While the cost of the $9,200 flight to and from Palm Springs is not as salacious as Ms. Redford’s $45,000 flight to South Africa, it is unclear why the premier did not return to Alberta on one of the many commercial flights available in the six days before the memorial service.

Both the Calgary Herald’s Don Braid and the Calgary Sun’s Rick Bell have penned articles in response to Ms. Redford’s Palm Springs flight.

Here’s the original tweet I sent on February 27, 2014:

Speech from the Throne & Budget
A Speech from the Throne will open the spring sitting of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly today at 3:00 p.m. The 2014 provincial budget will be tabled by Mr. Horner on the afternoon of Thursday, March 6.

NDP to nominate the first candidate of the 2016 election
As was first reported last week on this blog, the Alberta NDP will hold a candidate nomination meeting on March 4 in the Edmonton-Riverview constituency. The NDP are expected to nominate Lori Sigurdson, manager of professional affairs with the Alberta College of Social Workers, as their candidate. The constituency is currently represented by PC MLA Steve Young.

Redford’s top advisor earns more than Obama’s top advisor, claims Wildrose

Leo McGarry West Wing Alison Redford Farouk Adatia Salary Pay

“Mr. President, I think we need to renegotiate my salary,” said West Wing chief of staff Leo McGarry upon discovering he earns less than Alison Redford’s chief of staff.

Premier Alison Redford‘s chief of staff earns a bigger salary than his counterpart in the West Wing, claimed the official opposition Wildrose in a press release yesterday.

As the salary disclosure “sunshine list” of Alberta’s senior public servants who earn more than $100,000 annually was released late last week, opposition critics honed in on Ms. Redford’s senior staff. The Wildrose opposition targeted the salary of chief of staff Farouk Adatia, whose annual salary was $316,274.69 in 2013, according to the disclosure list.

Wildrose Alberta West Wing

The infographic released by the Wildrose Official Opposition caucus.

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith trotted out  numbers showing that Mr. Adatia is paid nearly double the salary of American President Barack Obama‘s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, who earned $172,200 in 2013. In Mr. McDonough’s defence, this is a pitifully low salary for someone in such a senior government role.

Also on the Wildrose hit list was Ms. Redford’s director of communications, Stefan Baranski, who earned $207,829 in 2013, compared to the $179,311 earned by his predecessor in 2012.

While Mr. Adatia and Mr. Baranski may have fairly negotiated their salaries and benefits, it adds to the growing public perception that Ms. Redford is woefully out of touch with the reality faced by ordinary Albertans.

These salary increases in Ms. Redford’s inner circle occurred at the same time as the government is negotiating forcing pay freezes on many frontline public sector employees. The same frontline workers are facing government-imposed changes to their pension plans, which could drastically impact their retirement security.

A political response to a political problem
The government’s salary disclosure list is a political response to last year’s outcry over the more than $2,000,000 in severance packages that had been paid to former senior staff in Ms. Redford’s office, including  $130,000 in severance paid to former chief of staff, Stephen Carter (Mr. Carter released the amount in a tweet after Ms. Redford refused to answer media question about his severance package).

Sunshine on the CTF
The “sunshine list” has been long advocated for by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, whose Alberta director, Derek Fildebrandt, was somewhat ironically quoted alongside transparency minister Don Scott in the original government press release announcing the salary disclosure. The CTF is an organization that could use a sunshine of its own. While always available for a snappy quote or photo-worthy media stunt, the six-member lobby group  closely guards its own list of financial bankrollers, which continues to remain secret.

Hope and Debt

Alison Redford Debt Alberta

“Debt” we can believe in?

The political battle between the Wildrose opposition and long-governing Progressive Conservatives continued today as the Legislative Assembly resumed for the fall sitting. Debt was the biggest issue of the day. Wildrose leader Danielle Smith jumped at the opportunity to make light of comments Premier Alison Redford made that compared the government’s decision to accept debt financing as “hope.”

“Let’s take some of the premier’s other quotes and sub in ‘hope’ for ‘debt’ and see if that makes sense. Alberta does not have hope, and we will not incur hope. We cannot come out the current fiscal situation with hope.”
“So to the premier, if debt is hope, when can we expect to once again be hope free?”
– Danielle Smith

After a decade of worshiping an anti-debt orthodoxy that defined former Premier Ralph Klein‘s era in Alberta politics, the natural governing party changed their tune. Abandoning the culture of “no debt” that they created has undoubtably been difficult for the PCs as they embraced a new faith in capital financing. It makes fiscal sense if you want to plan for the long-term, but in the Alberta context, it symbolizes an awkward culture shift for a political party that defined itself by this rally cry.

Cabinet shuffle rumours

If there is any truth to the cabinet shuffle rumours that have been circulating in political circles, it would not be unexpected for Ms. Redford to hit the reset button after she faces a mandatory leadership review in November (I anticipate PC activists will approve of her leadership). It may surprise Albertans to discover that twenty-seven of fifty-nine PC MLAs currently serve in some ministerial or associate ministerial role (that’s 45% of the government caucus).

Doug Griffiths

Doug Griffiths

Three cabinet ministers who have caused particular difficulty for the government  and should be candidates to be shuffled are Education minister Jeff Johnson, Municipal Affairs minister Doug Griffiths, and Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk.

Mr. Johnson has earned the distain of teachers and schools boards officials for his clumsy handling of the last year’s Alberta Teachers’ Association contract negotiations and the ensuing financial havoc wreaked on the education employers.

Mr. Griffiths has locked horns with Calgary’s popular mayor Naheed Nenshi too many times to be seen as an effective minister. The election of Don Iveson as mayor of Edmonton could help convince the Premier that perhaps she needs a more effective communicators in the increasingly important municipal affairs role.

Ramming through the Redford government’s cuts to post-secondary education, the powerful Mr. Lukaszuk frequently speaks as if he leads the government, leading some conservatives to suggest he has leadership ambitions of his own. Some conservatives have begun noticing similarities between Mr. Lukaszuk and former Deputy Premier Ken Kowalski.

In the first few years of Mr. Klein’s administration, Mr. Kowalski served in a powerhouse role as Deputy Premier and the unofficial “Minister of Everything.” At the time, some Tories suggested that Mr. Kowalski was actually running the government, which raised the ire of Mr. Klein. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Kowalski was unceremoniously booted from the halls of power by Mr. Klein mid-way through his government’s first-term.

The curious case of Doug Elniski

Former Conservative Member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber isn’t the only former Edmonton-Calder PC MLA to go rogue. Former PC MLA Doug Elniski announced days ago that he had joined the Wildrose Party and was attending that party’s policy convention last weekend. Mr. Elniski was the second PC MLAs to endorse Ms. Redford in her bid for the PC leadership and stood at her side when she spoke to the media following her win in that race. He did not seek re-election in 2012.

Showing a surprising lack of class, Ms. Redford’s communications director Stefan Baranski took to Twitter to attack the former PC MLA for controversial comments he made years ago. It appears that many of Ms. Redford’s staff spent their weekend posting juvenile and sarcastic tweets about the opposition party’s gathering. Apparently this is how senior government staff spend their weekends these days.

 

Public Affairs Bureau boss Lee Funke resigns.

Lee Funke, Managing Director of Alberta’s Public Affairs Bureau, announced his resignation in an email to government staff today. Mr. Funke had served as Managing Director of the government’s communications branch since March 2010.

Tracy Balash, Executive Director of Communications Planning, has been asked to step in as acting Managing Director. Ms. Balash recently joined the PAB after working in Premier Alison Redford‘s Communications Office.

The PAB was already in a period of transition after the retirement of Kathy Lazowski, its executive director of strategic communications.

Here is the text of the email he sent this morning:

Good morning team,

Two weeks ago I went to Peter Watson and informed him of my decision to return to private consulting once my contract as Managing Director of the Public Affairs Bureau ended. Peter has graciously allowed me to take some personal time before my contract concludes March 31, so my last day as Managing Director is tomorrow.

Reaching my decision was difficult, I am so very proud to lead this organization. Events like the recent Alberta Economic Summit held in Calgary demonstrate the important role we play in communicating significant policy issues with Albertans. The professionalism of our team was evident the entire day and I couldn’t have been more pleased. I see that same dedication by each employee of the PAB everyday – whether it is managing a special event to announce a new program, developing a multi-media promotion campaign, designing a public consultation strategy, launching an information website, writing a speech, or responding to a media call.

The PAB has one of the most exciting and challenging functions in the Government of Alberta.

We are on the front line communicating the policy, program and organizational changes that are a daily reality in a large complex organization. And there has been much change over the last three years that I have been Managing Director. The increasing demands of a 24/7 news cycle, the advent of social media, and emergence of new political voices have meant the adoption of new tools and techniques to communicate our policy agenda with Albertans.

Of course, the election of Premier Redford as the new leader for our government also brought change. Many of us have new Ministers, DMs, and in some cases new departments. But we have also seen the addition of new policy and decision–making processes, as well as new co-workers in the form of Press Secretaries. I admire how our organization has responded by adapting and implementing the changes needed to support Premier Redford’s focused agenda.

While the past three years have been rewarding, it is now time to switch my time and energy back to my government relations and communications consulting business which has been on hold.

I will continue to be involved in public policy discussions (it is part of my DNA) and our paths are likely to cross again in the near future. I will also be spending some time with my ever patient family. I know my wife, [name removed by this blogger], is certainly looking forward to me assuming more of the responsibilities for raising our two sons.

I have asked Tracy Balash, Executive Director, Communications Planning to act on my behalf until a new Managing Director is selected. In addition, Andy Weiler, Executive Director, Strategic Communications and the rest of the head office team are in place to offer the services you need to deliver communications support to your clients. I know that you will all support Tracy and Andy over the next few weeks and apply your considerable talent and skills to the roll-out of a budget that requires tough but smart choices to deal with our government’s fiscal challenge.

Let me close by saying thank you to the PAB team for your support and encouragement.

Everything I accomplished during my tenure as Managing Director was made possible by you. I have learned much from the many projects we have worked on together and I leave this organization with new knowledge and skills. I wish you all continued success in your careers and personal life, you deserve nothing less.

All the best,

Lee

Click here to read the statement issued by Premier Redford’s Communications Director, Stefan Baranski.

Welcome to Queen’s Park West.

Alberta Queens Park West

Queen’s Park West

The staff overhaul in Premier Alison Redford‘s Communications Office has resulted in two new hires. One was already working in Alberta’s Legislature and the other comes direct from Ontario’s provincial legislature.

Already under the dome, Michael Norris left his job as Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths‘ press secretary to become the Premier’s Issues Manager.

Neala Barton is the outgoing Director of Media Relations for recently retired Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty and will soon begin her new job as the media relations lead in the Alberta Premier’s Communications Office (now to be referred to as “Queen’s Park West“). She is also a former reporter with CBC television in Edmonton.

Ms. Barton will be joining another Ontario political expat in Queen’s Park West, Communications Director Stefan Baranski. Mr. Baranski previously worked for Ontario Tory leaders Ernie Eves, John Tory, and Tim Hudak.

Facing-off against an aggressive official opposition, it is no coincidence that the Premier’s communications team is looking to hire political operators from a province where political competition is not a new phenomenon.

On a related note, I have been unable to confirm rumours that special orders from the Brewers Retail and Pizza Pizza will be flown in daily to Edmonton.

If you have any questions about these changes, please contact 416-967-1111.

Big turnover in Premier’s communications office.

After staff departures, former Ontario-based political operatives hold two top roles in Alberta Premier’s Office.

Last week it was announced that Jay O’Neill is departing his job as Director Communications under Premier Alison Redford‘s. Although Mr. O’Neill only joined the Premier’s office in late 2011, it is not uncommon for individuals to only fill these types positions for a short period of time.

The Tories were hit with a handful of embarrassing scandals in the closing months of 2012 and were caught unprepared, having to spend the fall sitting of the Assembly playing defence against an aggressive Wildrose Party opposition. The Spring sitting of the Assembly will begin on March 5, 2013.

Premier Alison Redford

Premier Alison Redford

Four other staff left or announced their departures from Premier Redford’s communications office over the past few months, perhaps a result of internal pressure to change direction and take a more aggressive approach towards political communications in 2013.

Tammy Forbes left her job as the Premier’s Communications Liaison Manager to become Chief of Staff to embattled Tourism Parks and Recreation Minister Christine Cusanelli. Minister Cusanelli faced harsh criticism before the Christmas break when she was forced to repay the government $10,600 for expenses racked up in her first five months in office, including a $4,000 airfare charge to have her daughter and mother fly with her to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, United Kingdom.

Before joining the Premier’s office in 2011, Ms. Forbes was director of communications in the Department of Transportation.

Two other departing staff have jumped from their political jobs to roles in the public service. Tracy Balash has left the Premier’s Communications Office to become the Executive Director of Communications Planning in the Public Affairs Bureau (PAB). As noted in a recent Globe & Mail article, the PAB is in a period of transition after the retirement of Kathy Lazowski, its executive director of strategic communications.

Stefan Baranski

Stefan Baranski

The Premier’s Issues Manager Nikki Booth is now the Acting Issues Manager (Communications) in the Department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

Kim Misik, the Premier’s press secretary, also announced that she will be leaving her position.

Social Media Manager Mike Jenkinson remains the longest serving member of the Premier’s team, having started in the office during Ed Stelmach‘s premiership.

The new Director of Communications is Stefan Baranski, who joined the Premier’s office as Director of Strategic Communications in September 2012 after leaving his job with the Toronto-based Counsel Public Affairs firm. In Ontario, he served as senior advisor to PC Party leaders Tim Hudak and John Tory, and Premier Ernie Eves.

Mr. Baranski is not the only former Ontario-based political operative in the Premier’s office. While originally from Alberta, Director of Operations Darren Cunningham is a veteran of Ottawa’s political scene, having served in Chief of Staff and communications roles for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and various Conservative cabinet ministers. He started working for the Premier’s office in June 2012. Another Ottawa insider, Lee Richardson left his job as a Member of Parliament to become the Premier’s Principal Secretary in May 2012.

It is suspected that not all of these vacant positions in the Communications office will be filled. Some sources suggest that the Premier’s office may increase their reliance on consultants from outside political and communications companies to fill the gap.

Alison Redford’s revenue problem will define 2013 budget fight.

The low price of oil and natural gas and an election promise of “no new taxes, no service cuts” has put Alberta’s Tories in an unenviable political bind and set the tone for this year’s provincial budget debate.

Premier Alison Redford Alberta

Premier Alison Redford

This week, Lee Richardson, Principal Secretary to Premier Alison Redford, released a trial balloon suggesting the government is looking at all revenue options, including tax increases, to fund the provincial operating budget.

On the capital side of the provincial budget, Premier Redford and Finance Minister Doug Horner have talked about taking an adult approach to long-term financing of capital projects and maintenance of public infrastructure.

After decades of aggressive messaging and lobbying from interest groups like Americans for Tax Reform in the United States and its the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Fraser Institute in Canada, our political culture has been shaped to include a gag reflex to the concept of increasing tax revenue.

The averse public reactions to tax increases are inevitable and is also strengthened with the increasingly prominent belief that government is inefficient and wasting public funds.

Danielle Smith Wildrose Party Alberta Election 2012

Danielle Smith

This perception has essentially robbed government of its ability to increase its most easily accessible and more reliable source of revenue. Alberta currently has some of the lowest tax rates in Canada. Alberta’s corporate tax rates have remained low even as profits of corporations in the province have climbed more than 300%. We could afford to raise corporate taxes and remain the most competitive jurisdiction in Canada.

In the recent provincial election, the Tories pledged they would not raise taxes, Danielle Smith‘s Wildrose are ideologically inclined to cut taxes (and cut services), and Raj Sherman‘s Liberalbertans have differentiated themselves by calling for increased taxes. Brian Mason‘s New Democrats largely shied away from tax talk, but remained steadfast that natural resources revenues should increase (in Norway, a $600 billion oil fund was created from resource revenues collected and invested by the government).

If you asked most Albertans whether they would support cuts to essential services like health care, education, and public infrastructure maintenance, most would overwhelmingly disagree with the cuts. Alberta is just beginning to recover from the decade-long turmoil caused by short-sighted budget cuts and public sector layoffs made by Premier Ralph Klein‘s government in the mid-1990s.

Albertans have a strong economy and good quality of life that is boosted by strong government programs that improve our health, education, and community services. With a growing population and a booming economy, long-term planning and stable funding, not cuts to government services, are critical to preserving and increasing our quality of life.

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Worth listening to: A recent recording of the popular This American Life radio show highlighted the debate and some of the affects that “austerity policies” have had south of the border.

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As noted in yesterday’s post, Premier Redford’s Director of Communications, Jay O’Neill, announced that he will be leaving his position at the Legislature. Stefan Baranski, a communications adviser to the Premier and formerly an Ontario-based consultant, will serve as the new Director of Communications.