Alberta Politics

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.

Alberta Politics

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.


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.


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.

Alberta Politics

Three investigations kick-off 2013 in Alberta politics.

Despite winning a large majority in last spring’s provincial election, Alberta’s long-governing Progressive Conservatives had a rough ride in the media and on the floor of the Assembly last year. If Tory MLAs hoped for a reprieve in 2013, they may be disappointed.

Starting off the year are three investigations that are direct results of political scandals and controversies from 2012:

Queue-Jumping Investigation

After a disappointing start late last year, the Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry continued this week with testimony from former Capital Health CEO Sheila Weatherill.

Fred Horne

Today, former Capital Health Board Chair Neil Wilkinson (now Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner) and Health Minister Fred Horne will be questioned. On Friday, Calgary Flames team doctor Jim Thorne and former Alberta Health Services chairman Ken Hughes (now an MLA and Energy Minister) will be appear as witnesses before the inquiry.

Anyone looking for a Watergate-type scandal that directly connects politically-influenced queue-jumping to the Premier’s office will likely be disappointed.

Elections Alberta investigates billionaire’s donations to PC Party

Global Edmonton:

“…retired Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Ernest Marshall has been appointed Director of the investigation, and Don Vander Graaf and Dave Davies have been retained as independent investigators.”

Daryl Katz

Elections Alberta will investigate a large donation allegedly made by pharmaceutical industry billionaire Daryl Katz, owner of the Edmonton Oilers, to the Progressive Conservative Party during the 2012 election. Mr. Katz is alleged to have made a $430,000 donation to the PC Party by funnelling funds through his family and employees. Under Alberta’s elections finance laws, maximum individual donations during an election period are limited to $30,000.

While to election finance laws introduced last year by Justice Minister Jonathan Denis allow for more disclosure of donors, the new laws did not further restrict the amount that an individual or corporation can donate to a political party.

Ethics Commissioner investigates tobacco conflict allegations

Premier Alison Redford Alberta
Premier Alison Redford

Ethics Commissioner Mr. Wilkinson will investigate alleged conflict-of-interest in a decision by the government to award a lucrative tobacco lawsuit contract to a firm where Premier Alison Redford‘s ex-husband works as a lawyer.

The official decision to choose the firm was made after the Premier had resigned as Justice Minister in 2012, but the recommendation of which law firm to choose was made during her tenure in the position.


Communications shift

Jay O’Neill, Director of Communications for Premier Redford is leaving his position. Globe  & Mail journalist Josh Wingrove noted on Twitter yesterday that over the last few months, along with Mr. O’Neill, four other staff have departed from Premier Redford’s communications office at the Assembly (Mr. O’Neill, Nikki Booth, Kim Misik, Tammy Forbes, Tracy Balash).

While it is difficult to speculate whether these departures were voluntary or not, it does appear that the Premier’s office may be taking steps to improve its communications and issues management strategy (especially in light of the investigations noted above).