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Corporate lobbyist and former Conservative aide appointed to University of Alberta post

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University of Alberta campus in 2013. Image: IQRemix/Flickr

A high-profile lobbyist with connections to past Alberta Conservative governments and involvement in a controversial effort to open a large private hospital in Edmonton has been named as the University of Alberta's new vice-president of external relations.

U of A leadership, presumably, concluded lobbyist Elan MacDonald has the connections necessary to work with Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party government, which is imposing crippling 20-per-cent cuts over three years on Alberta's post-secondary institutions.

MacDonald has recently toiled behind the scenes in her role as senior vice-president of Global Public Affairs, an Ottawa-based government advocacy and communications firm with offices in eight Canadian cities.

But back in the day she served for a spell as deputy chief of staff to Progressive Conservative premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford, and as campaign manager for Gary Mar, the front-runner to replace Stelmach who was unexpectedly defeated by Redford in the fall of 2011.

An official blog post by university president Bill Flanagan last week announced MacDonald's appointment with the usual breathlessly anodyne recitation of her professional accomplishments and board memberships.

In August, a story by CBC investigative journalists Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell provided a peek behind the curtain of how lobbyists like MacDonald work with the UCP government.

The CBC report described a leaked recording of a presentation to Edmonton-area orthopedic surgeons by a group including doctors and a developer, assisted by MacDonald and her firm, who hope to build and operate the largest private, contracted surgical facility in Alberta's history.

The CBC's scoop focused on the revelation the facility near the Royal Alexandra Hospital in downtown Edmonton already enjoyed strong support from Health Minister Tyler Shandro, according to speakers, including MacDonald, who are heard during the hour-long recording.

The recording, the reporters wrote, "provides a rare window into how the promoters of the project, through their lobbyists, wielded political influence behind the scenes to advance a private health-care initiative."

"The government has been very warm to the project," MacDonald is heard saying in the recording of the pitch meeting to the surgeons, according to the CBC's report.

"We really want [the Ministry of Health] from the political perspective to be pulling this project through and really be directing down to [Alberta Health Services] that this is something that they want to have happen," the CBC quoted her telling the gathered surgeons.

The CBC story quoted MacDonald saying Shandro's principal advisor, lawyer Ivan Bernardo, "also was very warm to the project and really asked, 'What are the impediments and how can he help remove them?'"

Global Public Affairs, of course, is only one of many groups lobbying the health ministry seeking business opportunities as the UCP goes about privatizing health care in Alberta.

PressProgress reported last week that Alberta Health, as the ministry is known, has been lobbied more than 150 times since the beginning of September. The lobbying efforts included "104 companies that generally operate on a for-profit mandate or offer private health services," PressProgress said.

Meanwhile, MacDonald will take up her new duties with the U of A, where she worked in 2001 on what Flanagan described as the university's "government relations team," on New Year's Day 2021.

She will arrive just in time to help the university deal with those brutal cuts announced last spring for Alberta post-secondary institutions by Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides.

And the university's plans, it would seem, to merge faculties, lay off employees and make significant changes to traditional programs in response are proceeding apace.

On Friday, in another official U of A blog post, president Flanagan released a 46-page document containing three revised proposals for the restructuring of the university. An earlier version was circulated in September.

Flanagan asked members of the university community to participate in a "thought exchange" about which of the three restructuring proposals for the university they would prefer.

They will have until tomorrow to get their comments in, a time frame that certainly gives the impression that not much sober second thought will be possible about the scenarios the president's restructuring committee has come up with.

MacDonald should probably expect fireworks.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: IQRemix/Flickr

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