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The PCs and Alberta's government: one entity, indivisible, under God?

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Stefan Baranski

As befits an almost exclusively political event, criticism of today's Alberta economic summit by the Opposition Wildrose Party prompted a harsh and highly partisan riposte by the Redford Government.

A news release issued yesterday on government letterhead over the name of Stefan Baranski, Premier Alison Redford's communications director, accuses Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith of a "deliberate misinformation campaign" against the premier, the summit and the March 7 budget.

The release was responding to an opinion piece in the Calgary Herald yesterday by Smith that accused the Redford government of favouring "tax hikes over spending cuts" and claimed the premier "can't stop talking about taxes."

Under the heading "Danielle Smith wrong about Alberta Economic Summit," the highly partisan government/PC release uses colourful language to excoriate the Wildrose Party, which it says "from one day to the next … can't quite get its story straight" and additionally accuses Smith of flip-flopping on the MLA pay cut.

OK, this is all in good fun and part of the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Indeed, the government has a legitimate gripe about Smith's characterization of the premier's position on taxes.

But the issue here is that by sending its media release out on government stationery, Redford's Progressive Conservative Party blurs the line between the party and the government and oversteps the traditional limits on what's properly a partisan party activity and what's an official government act.

But then, after more than four decades in power, it's not hard to understand how Alberta Progressive Conservatives have come to think of their party and the province's government as one entity, indivisible, under God.

The partisan nature of Baranski's release sparked a short and highly entertaining slapfest on Twitter between CBC investigative journalist Charles Rusnell and former Redford chief of staff Stephen Carter, now the Hill & Knowlton PR agency's Calgary-based "national strategist."

"Another blatantly partisan #pcaa release on #abgov letterhead," Rusnell groused. "Anything goes now?"

"Same tax dollars used by the opposition to attack govt. and by Chaz #doublestandard?" Tweeted back Carter, whose paw prints are reputed to be all over the summit plan and who lately is reported by Mark Lisac's subscription-only Insight Into Government newsletter (which does not appear online) to have reemerged in the premier's office "helping with logistics."

Rusnell's reference to another party release on government letterhead acknowledged that this has happened before, back in December, when the government was accused of crossing an ethical line for responding the same way to Opposition attacks in the Tobaccogate affair.

"I think it's definitely a transgression," said political scientist Simon Kiss in a CBC story at the time. "It's pretty inappropriate for government resources and government staff to be including partisan attacks in public communications," explained Kiss, a former Alberta NDP staffer who is now an expert in political communications at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

In fairness, Baranski's news release did not appear on the official government website -- nevertheless, its presentation certainly gives the impression that the PCs either don't get, or don't care about, the difference between their party and the government they're entrusted to lead.

Indeed, one could argue that the entire one-day economic summit exercise, set to begin this morning at Mount Royal University, intentionally blurs the lines between partisan PC party campaign activities designed to achieve political goals and the government's role running the province.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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