Alberta Politics Guest Post

guest post: a liberal party perspective on the alberta party.

By: Justin Archer

Dave Cournoyer and I have known each other since 2005, when I got my first real job working in a junior staff position with the Alberta Liberals. Dave started working there shortly after I did, and the two of us became friends. He’s mentioned to me before that I could do a guest post at some point if there is a topic that seems to fit, but I’ve never asked to take him up on that offer until now.

Let me just explain first that I am the kind of person you’d probably expect to be in the Alberta Party. I live in a condo downtown and have a pretty good job in what is thought of as the “creative economy”. I’m politically active. I still like to think I’m young (though I did find my first grey hair the other day, which needless to say was traumatic.) I am a strong supporter of human rights, and a proponent of mostly free markets with some government intervention in the economy to protect the common good. I also know quite a few people involved in the Alberta Party, and I like them and respect them. I agree with them in a broad sense on how this province should be governed, because their values are my values.

I think they might be making a Big Mistake though, and that’s what I want to talk about here.

The first part of my argument is that there are a couple of no-such-things:
1. There is no such thing as a post-partisan political party.
2. There is no such thing as a political party that falls outside of the traditional left/right spectrum.

No-such-thing 1 is essentially self-evident. The word partisan basically means “someone who supports a cause and works to achieve some end associated with that cause” . If an organization is trying to get people elected and maybe even form a government, it’s a partisan group. It’s not even really open to interpretation, that’s just what “partisan” means. It has been suggested to me that perhaps the Alberta Party intends to introduce a less partisan style of politics to the debate. I don’t really understand what this means, but if it means something along the lines of “no talking bad about the other guys”, I would be shocked if that sentiment sticks around the nascent organization for long, if it is even there now. Which it probably isn’t. No-such-thing 2 is also quite simple: When you get down to it, what a government does is take in the money and then figure out how to spend it. If you look at how each government philosophically approaches this job, you can figure out where it sits on the spectrum.

It’s like this: Some people think that the government should take in lots of the money and make sure that everyone gets a nice amount. Those people often think that the government should be involved in lots of things and intervene in many economic transactions. Those people are on the left.

There are other people who think that the government should take in some of the money, and make sure that everyone gets at least a least a little bit. These people also usually think that the government should allow economic activity to take place free of government interference except where there is a real problem that needs fixing. Those people are in the centre.

Then there are people who think that the government should take in only a little bit of the money, and it’s up to individuals to get things for themselves. These people also usually think that the government should keep its damn nose out of pretty much everything (unless their rich friends are in trouble, in which case those rules no longer apply). These people are on the right.

I’ve heard it said by people in the Alberta Party that this party is not possible to pin down on the spectrum I’ve described above. It would be fun and exciting to think this, but it would be wrong. I haven’t seen the policy that the Alberta Party passed at its recent convention, but I would very surprised if an analysis of that policy wouldn’t reveal that the party is in the centre. In fact I’d almost guarantee it. I think if you follow Alberta politics closely and you know the people in that party and the sorts of things that those people tend to think, you’d have to agree with me.

So if the Alberta Party is in the centre, and it is partisan, it is basically the Alberta Liberal Party only cooler and better looking. What I mean is that the values are very similar, the policies are likely quite similar, but it’s a newer and more exciting organization. It has an ambitious and fun culture, lots of wonderful and smart people, and a great attitude about how to engage people in the political process. It has also embarked on a great citizen engagement process and done a great job of getting ink for its work. But the actual values, the guts of the party, are not very different from those of the Liberals.

I also think that the Alberta Party will take many votes from the Liberals. I do not buy the argument that the 60% of people who didn’t vote last time will be the deciders in the next election. I think that for the most part, people who didn’t vote last time won’t vote next time. From the inside of a political party it is easy to start to believe that there is something big happening out there, and people are getting turned on. Largely though, political activity in Alberta takes place outside of the notice of the majority of the population and people who don’t follow politics are not getting turned on. In my view the pool of votes might be a little bigger next time, but not much.

Now this is the part where it’s easy to say, “sure, well if the Liberals are so great, why aren’t all these engaged young difference makers joining up with them?” The truth is that the Liberals haven’t done a good job of answering that question. But I actually don’t know that it’s the right question to be asking.

You see, I think that we are on the cusp of one of those generational shifts in Alberta politics where a new government will come to power. If you are reading this blog you don’t need a primer in Alberta politics – we can all agree that historically there has been a one-party culture here, and when a change in government comes, it is fast and total. Many people, and particularly many rural constituencies, want to be on the side of the winning team, so support tends to move quickly to the party who looks like it may form government. I think that because of this, in the next election, small “c” conservative support will begin to drift from the PC Party to the Wildrose Alliance Party. In the election after that, that conservative support will firmly coalesce around the Wildrose Alliance Party, and that party could easily form a government at that time.

There is a strong parallel to federal politics here. Let’s be honest, the Chretien/Martin government years were made possible in large part by the split in the conservative family over much of that time period. Now that the federal conservatives are re-united under one banner, it’s not so easy for those in the centre to form a government, as we’ve continually seen. I think that this is probably one of the only times where we’ll have a similar political situation here provincially, and as moderates in this province it looks like we’re about to waste it by grouping in factions instead of realizing that we all pretty much agree on things. If centrist political organizers and voters are divided during the next five or six years between the Alberta Party, the Progressive Conservative Party and the Alberta Liberal Party, the moderates in this province will probably lose the opportunity to form a government for the next generation.

In summary my argument is this: We’re about to miss an opportunity while the conservative house is divided because of things like process and personality. I believe that process and personality are important in politics, but when you peel it all back, the values underneath are what really matter. And in the absence of a divergence on values, is it not foolish to have competing organizations?

I don’t know how to solve this. I’m not saying the Alberta Party should stop doing what they’re doing. I’m not saying the Liberals should fold up the tent. But I do think this is a real discussion that needs to take place on this side of the coming electoral opportunity, rather than a lament on the other side of it.

Anyway, thanks to Dave for letting me air this here. Please chime in in the comments.


Justin Archer is a young guy in Edmonton who is involved in this and that around town. He grew up in Calgary but moved here about five years ago to take his first big kid job as a Liberal staffer. After a 2008 election night filled with tears and despair (but I thought we were gonna be the governm…….*sob* *sniffle*), he went to work for a Edmonton-based PR firm, where he is now a consultant. He believes that Alberta is a great place and most of the whole redneck thing is exaggerated. Follow him on Twitter @justin_archer.

Read other guest posts to this blog.

Grande Prairie Politics Guest Post

guest post: grande prairie election 2010.

By Jerry MacDonald

Grande Prairie: the flowers of democracy (campaign signs) are in full bloom in this northern city of just over 50,000. Grande Prairie is in for a relatively interesting civic election this year. There are five (5) candidates for the Mayor’s chair, and 14 candidates for the eight seats on council. The City of Grande Prairie has no wards, so all positions are elected “at large”. For this reason, the position of mayor does not have the unique influence it has in a city with a ward system, where only the mayor’s mandate is city-wide. In Grande Prairie, the mayor is just another vote on city council. On the other hand, the adjacent County of Grande Prairie No. 1 is going to have a very uninteresting election, as six of its nine divisions (including that of the current reeve, Everett McDonald) have been acclaimed.

The issues? Well, of course, Grande Prairie isn’t Edmonton. For one thing, we only have one airport :-); and it’s within city limits. More seriously, foremost among the issues would have to be the cost of living, such as city taxes; quality of life; and relations with the province, including the effectiveness of city lobbying for the province to meet its responsibilities.

The way I see it, there are two kinds of voters, and two kinds of municipal politicians, in this city (and most other smaller cities as well, I expect). There are those whose view of the city’s role is limited to paving the streets and paying for fire fighters, cops, etc. Then there are others who feel that a city must provide services and resources to increase the quality of life for its residents, especially if it is going to attract qualified professionals to teach in the schools and at the college, to work in the health care system, and generally to support the local economy. The first group wants taxes and spending held and even reduced; the second feels that revenue must be generated, and dollars expended, for the city to provide those resources and services. Here in the City of Grande Prairie, one of the complicating factors is that much of the most lucrative tax base is actually from industrial assessments outside its borders, in the County (full disclosure time: this writer has just moved into the County from the city, with the side benefit of lower property taxes than I would pay for the same home in the city), while much of the demand for services is located within city limits.

Dwight Logan (incumbent)
⁃ former teacher; born in Edmonton, raised in GP; educated in GP and at the U of A (BA History & English, 1969; teaching certificate, 1970)
⁃ long-time fixture on Grande Prairie city council, having served three terms as alderman and two previous terms as mayor (1986-1992)
⁃ stood as Liberal candidate in the provincial constituency of Grande Prairie-Wapiti in 1993
⁃ along with family, former owner of soon-to-be demolished York Hotel

Ald. Gladys Blackmore
⁃ born in Beaverlodge (west of GP), where she completed high school
⁃ listed as having attended arts programmes at U of A & Athabasca Univ. (not clear whether she earned a degree)
⁃ current President & Executive Director, United Way of Grande Prairie & Region
⁃ alderman since 2001

Ald. Bill Given
⁃ self-employed marketing & communications consultant
⁃ born & raised in GP, attended Medicine Hat College (visual communications)
⁃ first elected to city council in 2001 (youngest ever in GP history), has served three consecutive terms on council
⁃ stood as federal Independent candidate for riding of Peace River in Jan 2006 (finished 2nd behind Conservative Chris Warkentin, with 20.3% of the vote, and ahead of 3rd-place Susan Thompson of the NDP)

Nasim Khan
⁃ among some of the planks on his platform are a passenger rail link between GP and Edmonton (actually not a bad idea, but I don’t think it will ever happen) and elevating the status of GP Regional College to a university
⁃ no website, but has a Facebook page (I haven’t joined, so I don’t have much more information on him, such as a bio)

Dale Robertson
⁃ I cannot find any information on this unknown candidate

If I were allowed to vote in this election, Given would have my vote for Mayor. Logan has just been around too long, and as for Blackmore … well, some months ago, my youngest daughter (then 19) was taking a course at the college, and had to attend a city council meeting for an assignment. She asked me to come along so she’d know what was going on. During the meeting, I was well-placed to see the computer screens of several of the aldermen, including Blackmore’s. She spent the entire evening playing solitaire! Now, maybe she is quite good at mental multi-tasking, and gave the matters being considered by council her full attention, but as a taxpayer, I was offended (my daughter was appalled). I was paying this woman $28,000 a year to play solitaire? I could play it myself for free.

Note: City Council recently passed a motion to rename its members from ‘Alderman’ to ‘Councillor’, to take effect after this year’s elections
IMHO, the most interesting feature of this year’s elections for city council is who is not running: two first-term aldermen have announced that they will not be running again: local businessman Yad Minhas (Minhas Bros. trucking), the first South Asian to be elected to GP city council; and GPRC English Instructor and author (and prominent local NDP activist and sometime candidate) Dr. Elroy Deimert, who has also announced his retirement from GPRC, intending to focus on his writing
⁃ incumbents that are running again are engineer and businessman Dan Wong , retired school superintendent Lorne Radbourne , businessman Alex Gustafson, and perennial alderman (& perpetual smokestack) Helen Rice (BTW, she voted against the motion to change ‘alderman’ to ‘councillor’), who has sat on council since a 1979 by-election; Rice is a former radio talk-show host and mall manager, and is now manager of the Downtown Association and a member of the board of directors of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association
⁃ some of the other candidates include John Croken, who was previously on council but was voted off in 2007; Kevin McLean, a 3rd-time candidate (he ran in ’04 & ’07) who had his in-your-face election signs out six months ago (and thereby lost this citizen’s vote even before I knew I would be moving out of the city); and Justin Munroe , a businessman who owns both Pizza Hut locations in the city

County of Grande Prairie No. 1
Out in the county, one potential issue arose too late to have an influence on this year’s campaign, and that is the decision by county council to terminate its fire service agreement with the city at the end of next year, and create its own composite (mixed volunteer and professional) fire service, effective Jan 2012, for the rural Grande Prairie area. This is of particular import for those residents (myself included) who live very close tho the city limits and within a scant 3-5 minutes from a city fire hall, and wonder about the response times and quality of service from a composite service. But the decision was announced a scant week and a half before Nomination Day, and so had little or no effect on whether potential council candidates stepped forward.

Jerry MacDonald has been a Registered Nurse for 25 years and was educated in Halifax. Moved to Fort Vermilion, Alberta in 1985, and to Grande Prairie in 1988. Former UNA activist and local president at QEII Hospital (2003-2006). NDP candidate in 2004 provincial election (Grande Prairie-Wapiti); also worked on several other campaigns at both provincial and federal levels. Married to Nancy; three adult children. BSc in Nursing, post-RN (U of A 2010).

Danielle Smith Ed Stelmach Guest Post Laurence Decore

guest post: progressives vs conservatives.

I wish to sincerely thank Dave for giving me the chance to post on his blog. I normally write about boring stuff like Alberta’s labour market over in my own blog. Dave is giving me a chance to write about politics, a topic I love but isn’t appropriate in my blog.

Alberta has a reputation of being the most conservative province in the country. Indeed, provincially we have elected a conservative government since the 1930’s and this province has sent many conservative politicians and parties to Ottawa. When it comes to the bluster and rhetoric of the campaign, Alberta’s conservative base tends to dominate. Conservative values tend to appeal to Albertans after dominating the discourse of this province for so long.

But Alberta is also the birth place of the CCF – the forerunner of the NDP – Canada’s left wing party. It was founded in Calgary in 1932. In the 1920’s Alberta, through the United Farmers movement, was responsible for sending ‘Progressives’ to Ottawa and caused probably the biggest constitutional crisis (and huge parliamentry drama) in Canada’s history.

This post is not a history lesson. But the truth is that Alberta does have a number of active ‘progressive’ movements to counterbalance the conservative movements that get elected. While the parties may campaign from the right, they most often govern from the centre.

Much is being made about the ascendency of the Wild Rose Alliance. Indeed, this party probably represents the biggest threat to the governing Conservatives since Laurence Decore and the Liberals forced the Tories to rebrand themselves in 1992. I believe Danielle Smith is doing everything right to unseat the Tories. One of her primary spokespeople is Ernie Isely and his message has recently been that the new party needs to ‘moderate’. Indeed, the two defections this week were not from hard core raging social conservatives but from moderate tories who have problems with Ed Stelmach‘s leadership style and the apparent lack of democracy in their old party. 

The ‘progressive’ parties can’t seem to get any traction on Ed or Danielle though. The Liberals can’t seem to shake the ghost of the NEP from 30 years ago and nobody wants to listen to the NDP outside of a few ridings in Edmonton. In my opinion, the problem for the progressive side is leadership. They just cannot get a leader who is articulate in front of the camera and can play the political game. Instead, the Wild Rose elected that very leader and is able to capitlize on the province’s disaffection of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta.

So while Danielle says all the right things, the progressives are trying to figure out what the right things are to say. While I agree with the spirit of such movements like Reboot or Renew Alberta, they will not be able to develop a coherant message and organization in time for the 2012 election.

For any Alberta party to be elected they need to build a ‘big tent’ to bring in a wide range of Albertans. If Danielle and the Wild Rose Alliance continue to do everything right, I see this tent collapsing around Ed Stelmach as hard core and moderate conservative alike move to the WIld Rose. I’m afraid that Ed does not have a lot of appeal to many of the progressives still in his party so I see a lot of the ‘red tories’ moving to other parties. Alberta history (and Alberta voters) is not kind to former ruling parties. 

It might be too late for the progressives to develop a counter offensive to the momentum already enjoyed by the Wild Rose for 2012. But they can’t lie down and die. I believe that there is support for progressive values in Alberta, if we had the right people and the right organization promoting them. There is nothing in Alberta’s law that says we need to keep electing the same government for 40 years. If Danielle and her party do get elected, they could be unseated. Realistically, I think Albertans give a particular political brand that they have bought into 12 to 15 years before they tire of it. But now is still the time to build up a movement to rival the conservatives in Alberta. But the message needs to be coherant and it needs to come from one organization, not 2 or 3 or 4. If this happens, then hopefully the Wild Rose Alliance isn’t given a mandate to rule Alberta until my own children have children. 

Again, I sincerely thank Dave for giving me a chance to post my views here. And if you want to check out my opinions on Alberta’s economy and labour market, check out my blog ‘Gas, Cows and Oilsands – Alberta’s Labour Market?’

Jason is a born and raised Albertan. He is currently raising a family in Edmonton. He normally writes on labour market issues at

Federal Liberals Guest Post

guest post: ‘i’ve never felt more inspired to start a political movement in alberta.’

This past weekend, I had the privilege in taking part in the Liberal Party of Canada’s Convention in Vancouver. It was a fantastic new experience for me, one which I will never forget, and it was my first foray into real politics. And I wasn’t disappointed.

There were the highs and lows expected from politics. Surprisingly, most of the lows I witnessed were within the Young Liberals of Canada. There’s nothing like extremely ambitious young Canadians vying for coveted positions to put politics in perspective. Everyone is striving to make themselves a name strong enough to grab the attention of party insiders and political superstars like Bob Rae, Alfred Apps, and Michael Ignatieff. Of the three contested races, I followed the race for VP Policy the closest. Timothy Smith and Pierre-Luc Lacoste both ran admirable campaigns, but Lacoste’s French connection won out in the end.

Besides some shameful and money wasting efforts on behalf of youth candidates to get elected, it was the lack of young women involved that caught my attention. Of the 10 positions filled, only two are held by women, and neither of them ran in contested races. The party is trying to focus on re-growth and renewal with an emphasis on gender parity and with youth often being the most progressive members of a party, parity should be high on the list of things to-do for the Young Liberals of Canada.

After this weekend thought, I’m feeling more positive about being a Liberal in Alberta. I’ve often felt ostracized and many have attempted to make me feel ashamed of my membership, but I’ve never backed down, and now, I have a reason not to. The Liberal Party is starting to focus on Alberta instead of ignoring it and chalking it up as a lost cause. The new election strategy is shaping up to be a “308 riding strategy” in which each riding, no matter how hopeless, should receive help from the central party to win an election. It will be an uphill battle in rural Alberta, regardless of how much money and how many “big name Liberals” the party throws at it. Even Alberta Liberals know this. I didn’t meet one Albertan who felt that their rural riding could be won easily, let alone at all.

However, I’ve never felt more inspired to start a political movement in Alberta. If the convention did nothing else, it certainly inspired some questioning Liberals to believe in the party again. Ignatieff seems to be the inspiration and the kick-start the party needs regain power. Earlier today I heard that the Liberals are up in the polls, ahead of the Conservatives, but that does not mean we are ready for an election. Major fundraising needs to be done before the party is ready to run a successful campaign. For the “308 riding strategy” to be effective, the party needs some disposable income, which it does not have.

All in all, it was an exciting weekend, and regardless of your party, everyone should get involved. The convention inspired me to get actively involved, and hopefully others will follow suit.


Caitlin Schulz was the only youth delegate from the Wetaskiwin riding south of Edmonton for the 2009 Liberal Convention in Vancouver. She is in her fourth year of studies at the University of Alberta, majoring in Political Science.

Chris Henderson Guest Post

guest post: how i became a former john mcain fan.

I began 2007 excited by the Presidential contest to come. The field for both parties was deep and varied. For the first time, I was rooting for a Republican. After watching the 2000 contest, I believed John McCain to be an individual with a history of personal sacrifice and unbending integrity: ingredients to be one of the great presidents. In the period following 9/11, I could not help but think that the war-hero senator would have been ideal to steer the western world into the New World Order. My impression of rookie Senator Barack Obama was less charitable. I found him to be all flash and no substance, as if he were giving clinics on stirring oration less than engaging in substantive policy debate.

However, in the course of my fascination/obsession with this presidential contest, my sentiments on both men have transformed immensely. As Senator Obama showed himself to be a visionary leader, speaking to my logical and emotional capacities, Senator McCain disturbed me with his seemingly insatiable desire to win-at-all-costs, blindly pandering to those whom he had so courageously held fast against in the past.

Throughout the course of the election, Sen. McCain has failed to articulate a cohesive, consistent message. Surveying the varied message themes of the campaign, a common thread begins to emerge: A promise to take care of current problems, which should get America back on track. The difficulty with this message is that it assumes that fixing the current state of things is all that is required to move forward; that a reversion to the Reagan Revolution will ensure the prosperity of America as if that period was its cultural, economic and social zenith. Indeed, in 2000, Sen. McCain tended to rely more on his compelling personal narrative than a political one, but even then his platform seemed more of his own devising than a pastiche of focus-group-tested planks designed to appease sections of the Republican base.

Conversely, Sen. Obama has developed a bold new paradigm for American progress. Rather than merely correcting the mistakes of the current administration, Sen. Obama seems genuinely intent on ushering in a New American Age. He has outlined a vision for an America that transcends petty dichotomies and has developed a heightened sense of purpose, focused on fulfilling the extraordinary promises ignored for the past 16 years in favor of political posturing and rigid ideological adherence. Sen. Obama reminds us that America’s greatest moments are not those when it reacted appropriately in the face of devastation, but when it forged a new way forward.

Irrespective of the fact that this decision is always made in the most animated of political climates, Vice-Presidential selection should never be a heavily political decision. While campaign promises are reiterated over and over, they can be discarded on the floor of the White House when they become inconvenient or untenable. A Vice-President is a decision that, except in very extreme circumstances, you are stuck with. In Senator Biden, Sen. Obama chose someone to provide much needed foreign policy muscle, both on the campaign trail and in the White House. VP picks don’t get much more straightforward than Sen. Biden.

Sen. McCain, however, made an inappropriate and, by most accounts, impulsive selection in Governor Sarah Palin. Setting aside any debate about her individual abilities, Gov. Palin was a cynical and purely political choice, designed to assure a drifting Republican base and scoop up any discontented Clinton voters making their choice on exclusively superficial grounds. Far and away the most myopic decision for any campaign in either party, the impulsive nature of this choice has backfired in spectacular fashion, locking in the base of the party while repelling independent voters that Sen. McCain was once uniquely positioned to deliver. To boot, the McCain team has spent most of the campaign treating Gov. Palin more like a decorative feature of the campaign rather than a genuine candidate for the second-highest office in the land.

The juxtaposition of temperament between these two candidates, especially in the last two months, has been stark.

While at his best when passionately sermonizing, Sen. Obama has displayed a capacity to be calm and measured when challenged, his confidence shining through in either case. Sen. Obama makes every effort to display his extraordinary leadership qualities and communicates with a conviction and sincerity that is difficult to come across in US politics. Since his convention address, his policies and priorities have been clear and consistent, yielding significant dividends.

In his speeches, Sen. McCain attempts to be reassuring and empathetic, but the open-ended nature of his attacks on Sen. Obama are the only component that manage to attract attention. By engaging in a series of Hail Mary campaign plays, bizarre debate behavior and a seemingly intentional effort to completely change, rather than hone, his campaign narratives, Sen. McCain has managed to undermine his previously well-earned reputation as an experienced, straight-talking candidate with the judgment to lead. His conduct during the initial days of the economic crisis could be charitably described as erratic. Like a desperate car salesman haggling at you rather than with you, his campaign has imploded into an embarrassing spectacle that betrays the ethos of the John McCain I came to admire in 2000.

As the election enters its final five days, Sen. McCain is faced with an unfavorable electoral map suggesting that this election will not be the nail-biting experience of 2000 or 2004. On the long road down, Sen. McCain’s campaign has devolved into a parody of itself. Attacks on Sen. Obama have become more outlandish, his policy communications have been reduced to gimmicks and infighting within his campaign is beginning to take its toll as staff turn their back on their central mission.

Even Joe the Plumber has left his side.


Chris Henderson is a political director based in Western Canada, where he spends his time holding democracy together. He is a former Chief-of-Staff to the President of Daveberta. He can be reached through his agent, the President of Daveberta.

Barry Styles Gerry Bourdeau Guest Post Highwood Communications Simon Kiss Stockwell Day

guest post: taking a closer look at highwood communications, the pab, and the alberta pc’s.

Highwood Communications’ recent bankruptcy has raised some important questions about its relationship to the government of Alberta, the news media and the provincial Progressive Conservative party. There are some real problems here, but it is important to get the facts straight.

If you haven’t been following the story, the brief outline is this. In 1996, the Klein government, in the full swing of privatizing as much of government as it could, decided to change the way that advertising agencies were paid for work for the provincial government. Previously, an advertising agency would win a contract and do all the work: they would meet with the client, map out a plan, design the creative artwork and then purchase the advertising space with the relevant news media. The agency was paid a commission of the overall cost of purchasing the space in the media. The problem, in the government’s eyes, was that this created a conflict of interest. The advertising agency had a strong interest in designing campaigns that were as expensive as possible: the larger the media buy, the larger the commission. So, to remove the conflict of interest, the Klein government proposed separating the media buying function from the other advertising functions (strategic planning and creative artwork). Ultimately, they tendered three media buying contracts: one for the recruitment advertising (civil service positions), one for legal / tender advertising (regulatory announcements) and one for everything else. The last contract was the largest of the three.

Enter Highwood Communications, the Calgary advertising firm led by Barry Styles won the largest of the three media buying functions. This firm was one of the leading Calgary advertising agencies through the 1980s, while Klein was mayor. It repeatedly was awarded the account for the Calgary Stampede. At that time, there was no real evidence (as far as I can find) that Highwood was either closely linked to the Progressive Conservatives or to government business. Of course, neither was Klein during his time as mayor. Nevertheless, when Klein ran for the leadership, one of Highwood’s executives joined the leadership team. Later, in preparation for the 1993 general election, a number of Alberta advertising executives formed the “Buffalo Group” to plan the advertising and publicity for the party’s election campaign. Barry Styles was a charter member of the group and remained with it through to Klein’s last election campaign in 2004. He was also involved in some of Stockwell Day’s campaigns when he was leader of the Canadian Alliance party. In short, Barry Styles was very closely linked to Ralph Klein, his government and his leadership of the Progressive Conservatives.

At the same time that Styles joined the party’s communications committee, Gerry Bourdeau, one of the government’s top civil service public relations officials was sitting on the same committee. Bourdeau remained on the party’s communications committee at least for the 1997 election and possibly later. In 1994, he became the Managing Director of the Public Affairs Bureau. So, when the government decided in 1996 to award the contract to Highwood, Bourdeau and Styles were sitting on the same committee of the Progressive Conservative party. Highwood maintained that contract until July 2008 when it suddenly – mysteriously – dropped. Weeks later, the company declared bankruptcy.

On the surface of it, this appears to be the crudest form of patronage and abuse of the public purse. However charges of patronage and abuse are serious and have to be grounded with evidence. In this case, the picture is a little bit clouded. First, the contract is actually not all that lucrative. Highwood charged a commission of 4% of all the media buying that it performed for the government. As far as I can tell, over the life of its contract this commission would net the firm anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000 in annual commissions. Second, there actually is a compelling case to be made for hiving off the media buying function from the rest of the advertising work to remove the conflict of interest noted above. This is a widespread trend within the advertising industry. Third, to hear the government tell it, the contract was always tendered, open and adjudicated by lower-level officials in the Public Affairs Bureau. Perhaps more importantly, it was a renewable contract. All this is entirely possible. The rules, properly applied do not preclude an advertising firm with close political links to the governing party from gaining government business.

However, while each of these three reasons are valid and should temper our accusations, there are problems with each and given that, there is a very good justification for some sort of inquiry into the affair. Let me address each one in turn.

First, although the commissions were small, there were not insignificant, either. I wouldn’t turn down a $100,000-$200,000 a year government contract. That is guaranteed income for an advertising firm, which is an unstable industry that fluctuates along with the wider economy. In Styles’ own words in his bankruptcy application, losing the government contract was the last straw that drove the company under.

Second, although there is a compelling case to hive off the media buying function from the rest of the advertising work, there is absolutely no reason why this function must be outsourced to the private sector. The work is exactly the kind of work that civil servants can be very good at. The entire rationale behind setting up the Public Affairs Bureau in the first place was to improve the professionalism of public relations professionals in the government of Alberta. In one important way, the most important lesson from the Highwood bankruptcy may not be one of corruption and patronage but yet another mark against the deregulation and privatizing fetishes that have swept the western world.

Third, and finally, the only evidence that we have that the rules were properly applied comes from government officials, and people who are involved in the transaction. This is hardly reliable. Moreover, even if the rules were properly applied, maybe there is something wrong with the rules. For example, in the government of Canada, deputy ministers are forbidden by law from participating in partisan politics except for voting. In Alberta, no such restriction applies and this allowed Mr. Bourdeau (who at the time was the equivalent of a deputy minister) to play politics for the Progressive Conservatives while serving the government of Alberta at the same time. Furthermore, even if there was nothing wrong with the way the contract was tendered in the first place, how do we know that the contract was sufficiently monitored and executed. One red flag within Highwood’s bankruptcy documents is that Highwood transferred $1.5 million in assets to Styles’ personal holding company. The bankruptcy advisor wrote to creditors saying that, in his opinion, it would be nearly impossible to claim these funds to repay creditors. Is such a transaction legitimate? I don’t know, I’m not a bankruptcy expert. But surely it is grounds for closer examination. The only way to determine whether these concerns are grounded is some sort of inquiry.

But at the end of the day, there is a broader lesson here. While the concerns about patronage and abuse of the system are real and valid, the chances that any inquiry will find a smoking gun are small. It is entirely possible that all the rules were properly applied. Instead, this incident is yet another example of how business elites move in and out of the government of Alberta, the Progressive Conservative party and the private sector, helping each other along the way. At the end of the day, the problem is not necessarily ethical, or even legal, but political. And for some reason, Alberta’s voters ignore this situation, let it continue and Alberta’s opposition parties are totally incapable of doing anything about it. But that’s a whole other story. Or PhD thesis.


Simon Kiss is a PhD student in the department of Political Studies at Queen’s University. Prior to beginning a PhD he worked for the Alberta NDP caucus from 1999 to 2002. His dissertation will be defended in November 2008 and examines the evolution of government communications in Alberta from 1971 – 2006. He knows more about the history of marketing, media relations and public relations in the government of Alberta than any sane person should.