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Calgary Sun, angry conservatives try to spin glorified typo into the first political brouhaha of 2016

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Deborah Drever

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The Calgary Sun called it "the first political gaffe of 2016."

A better description of yesterday's non-story about Independent MLA Deborah Drever's New Year's message would be that it’s Alberta’s first journalistic gaffe of the year.

Postmedia Network's Calgary Sun newspaper clearly deserves a certain amount of scorn for its apparent effort yesterday to spin what turns out to have been a glorified typographical error into a controversy about the supposed relationship between the NDP Government and the Calgary-Bow MLA, who was kicked out of the NDP caucus on May 22. The story thus far:

Yesterday morning, someone noticed that a New Year's greeting under Drever's name and picture in a free community newsletter in Calgary was word-for-word the same as one in another neighbourhood newsletter attributed to New Democrat MLA Brandy Payne, who represents the Calgary-Acadia riding.

Well, that much was true. As Drever told me yesterday, "neither my staff nor I submitted the newsletter update that ran under my name, nor were we given a proof to approve. All I can assume is that it is a mistake on the publisher's end. My staff was unable to reach anyone today. On Monday we will be requesting a retraction from the publisher."

Anyone who has worked in the publishing industry, as I did for many years, understands it is easy for things like this to happen, and how frequently they do. This should have been obvious to anyone who read to the end of the message, because it closed with Payne's contact information.

Regardless, pro-Wildrose Twitter trolls were soon hard at it, accusing Drever of "plagiarism," and the NDP of having secretly invited her back into its caucus without having made it official.

As alert readers will recall, Drever was elected on May 5 as a New Democrat MLA but was expelled from the government caucus 17 days later after a series of tasteless social media posts published before the Mount Royal University student had contemplated a political career came to light. Premier Rachel Notley said at the time she would review Drever's status within the year.

Since then, Drever was won accolades for a private member's bill, passed unanimously by the Legislature in December, designed to protect victims of spousal abuse by allowing them to break residential leases without financial penalty, thus making it easier to escape violent domestic situations.

"She has done a remarkable job in rehabilitating her image and will soon be back formally in NDP caucus," Mount Royal University political science Professor Duane Bratt predicted yesterday. However, while I agree with Bratt's assessment, there is no evidence Drever and the NDP are quite there yet.

Regardless, Edmonton Sun editor Dave Breakenridge soon began Tweeting about how "this looks awful" and repeating claims by others that "'#andp caucus comms published it on her behalf.' That's worse, no?"

A few hours later, the Calgary Sun story appeared on that newspaper’s website, giving plenty of ink to Wildrose Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt, Team Angry's chief dispenser of faux outrage, and a little less to Progressive Conservative interim Leader Ric McIver.

"Nobody around the Legislature has believed for one minute that Deborah Drever was ever an Independent," huffed Fildebrandt, the MLA for Strathmore-Brooks, a rural riding east of Calgary. "She is treated as a privileged member of the NDP caucus and has very obviously been receiving direct help, assistance and resources directly from the premier’s office."

McIver repeated several of Fildebrandt's talking points -- although I'm sure this was entirely coincidental -- expressing skepticism that the duplicate greeting was a publishing error. According to the Sun story, the Calgary-Hays Tory MLA even alleged Drever’s Independent status is "an expensive charade" designed to get more resources for the NDP caucus!

Fildebrabdt asked a related rhetorical question: "If we can't trust them to change a few words in a sentence to ensure that it's not blatantly obvious Miss Drever is getting her marching orders directly from the premier's office, how do we trust them on bigger issues?" (!)

Well, that would not be the simple explanation, which is usually the right one. And as will most certainly be formally revealed by the newsletter's publisher on Monday, what actually happened was nothing of the sort.

Indeed, if there was a political gaffe in this story -- other than Findebrandt's and McIver's theatrically cynical indignation -- it was Drever's mistake of not promptly returning the Sun reporter's call.

In this, I feel some sympathy with her. Postmedia newspapers, especially Sun tabloids, nowadays operate pretty much as the communications and outreach department of the Wildrose Party. In her shoes, I wouldn't have looked forward to dealing with a Sun reporter either, especially since as an Independent MLA she had no help from the government caucus's communications staff. Still, the lesson for everyone in politics is that it's always a mistake not to return media calls immediately.

What this understandable error by an inexperienced MLA really illustrates is not how close Drever is to the NDP’s caucus, but how close she isn't.

As an aside, it's interesting to note that for many years under Danielle Smith's leadership the Wildrose Party handed all its MLAs identical generic columns for occasions like New Year's to be placed in local papers under their names. In the past, a few MLAs balked and were given permission to make minor changes so that their greetings didn’t look like plagiarism, but some didn't bother.

I don’t know if this practice continues, but of course we should be keeping an eye on future Wildrose and Conservative party communications of this type, with the caveat that this will probably result in Wildrose supporters complaining New Democrats are wasting the Legislature’s money by making them write extra press releases.

Well, I expect once the facts are revealed on Monday that Fildebrandt, McIver and the Sun will all apologize to both Drever and the premier's office for their obviously inappropriate spin.

Don't you?

NOTE: This story has been updated with new information and observations about past Wildrose practices. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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