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Alberta's NDP needs to react more quickly, plus throw the Tories under the bus where they belong

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Brian Mason

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Alberta's new NDP Government too often sits passively by and lets other people, who are not its friends, frame important issues for it.

Needless to say, when the Wildrose Opposition, the Conservative rump in the Legislature or the usual suspects in the mainstream media tell the story, they're not going to spin it in a way that benefits the NDP program.

So this kind of docility has the potential to hurt our NDP Government if it doesn’t get fixed.

It's said here Premier Rachel Notley and her advisors need to do two things, starting right now:

1)    Get in front of developing stories and frame them the government's way

2)    Throw the Conservatives under the bus, where they belong

Getting in front of a story means anticipating that there's going to be a story, thinking in advance about how you’re going to respond to it and being ready to say something as soon as the media demands answers.

To do this well, a skilled political communications person needs to be able to think like a reporter, as well as like a policy wonk.

What's more, they have to be able to work as fast as reporters do. And I've got bad news about that. Nowadays, media deadlines aren't just at 11 a.m., 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. They are 24/7. Blame the Internet, but as one of my former bosses used to say, "get on the train or wait in the station!"

A government that's not prepared to react immediately to the media’s voracious appetite for interviews, backgrounders, press releases and responses risks having reporters get up to all sorts of mischief. So as my Mama used to say, "Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop."

Getting in front of stories also means being prepared to bypass the media, right from the get-go, if they're determined to spin their narrative in a way that hurts you.

When that happens, a government needs to be able to take its arguments directly to citizens. The federal Conservatives led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper are very good at that, and you don't have to approve of their policies to admire their skill at controlling the agenda.

The Ottawa Tories do another thing right. They don't ignore their base. Indeed, they may feed them too much red meat. But the Alberta NDP leadership needs to remember they have a base too, and politically speaking it's not exactly vegan either.

Satisfying conflicting political appetites can be a bit of a balancing act in a province with many essentially conservative voters and a historically effective conservative movement that won't be divided forever, but the NDP base is ignored in the government's policy mix at the party’s peril.

As for throwing the Conservatives under the bus, that simply means making sure the people who created the mess the NDP was elected to clean up get to take the credit they richly deserve for what they've done. Politics is a tough game, played with the elbows up, and if you can’t throw in a body check or two yourself, you should think about taking something gentler and more polite -- like cage fighting.

Seriously, people, if you can’t dish it out in politics, you'll get carried out! D'ya seriously think the other guys will cut you a break in the same circumstances?

Even when there's no one to blame for a problem, though, voters deserve to know immediately what you’re doing about it, and what you plan to do to make sure it doesn't happen again.

There are several recent examples that suggest the NDP is too being genteel, too passive, and much too slow making up its collective mind when it needs to deal right away with potentially dangerous stories.

The government waited nearly a week in silence before announcing on Tuesday that Environment Minister Shannon Phillips and Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd would tour the site of Nexen's Long Lake pipeline spill today.

When events like this happen, a coherent statement needs to be available immediately, and a minister on the spot just as fast. The statement needs to say what's being done to clean up the mess, and what's being done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

There are other examples. Consider the government's apparent shift from its pledge to shut down the Tories' massive carbon capture boondoggle. Premier Rachel Notley, Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Brian Mason and Education Minister David Eggen rightly excoriated this expensive and impractical scheme when they were in opposition.

I expect the beneficiaries of the Tories' insider deal wrote huge penalties into their contracts that mean it would be more expensive to close down the boondoggle immediately than to allow the clock to run out on it. But if that speculation is right, Albertans need to know.

Right now it sounds to a lot of voters, many of them NDP supporters, that the New Democrats are breaking a promise, just like the Tories used to do.

There's the CBC’s scoop Tuesday about the way rural funeral businesses seem to have been able to get the last Tory Government's Justice Minister to order his staff to reopen a government contract that didn't suit them.

The CBC couldn't get a senior New Democrat to comment! So the Wildrose Party's "accountability" critic, Jason Nixon, got the glory slamming the Tories with what the government should have been there to say. The only government statement came from senior officials, defending what they did when the PCs were in power!

And speaking of senior civil servants, where was the explanation when the NDP shuffled several deputy ministers, some closely tied tied to the PCs and known to be no friends of working people, the afternoon before Canada Day? The NDP base wants to know. Seriously.

The NDP isn't always so docile responding to messes made by the Tories, thank goodness. Public-private partnerships are a bad deal for taxpayers and governments, and a burr under the saddle to NDP supporters. They're really only good for the corporations that get the subsidy. But when the NDP announced it would go ahead with a P3 section of the Calgary ring road, Mason did a good job of explaining why.

The clock was running out on the window in which the agreement with the Tsuu T'ina First Nation that would allow the road to be built. If the deadline wasn't met, the deal could fall through or be delayed. So if the government dumped the P3, even for the right reasons, a badly needed road might never get built. Ergo, the only way to ensure the job got done was to get on with the process already in place -- flaws and all.

Thanks to Mason's communications skills, we voters know why we’re going to pay more, who's responsible and that the government knows how to avoid the problem in the future. Even the Wildrose Opposition cheered -- how could they not?

It's important that the NDP applies this lesson quickly to other departments because there are a lot of problems in this province that desperately need to be fixed.

The mess we face was created because the Conservatives were in power too long. Their troubled legacy can't be repaired by the Wildrose Party because the Wildrosers and the Tories are essentially the same people with the same philosophy and they'll do things the same way.

So it's quite important, actually, that the NDP Government get re-elected in four years’ time, and that means they have to improve their communications game now.

Sorry to say that. But better the government hears it now from its friends than the hard way, from disillusioned supporters and dissatisfied voters, when it’s too late to do anything but cry.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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