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Lobbyists, agencies, government-funded ideological front groups face setbacks in wake of Alberta's Orange Wave

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Alberta Legislature

WANTED: Someone -- anyone! -- willing to work for major national lobbying firm in Alberta. New Democratic Party connections essential! Orange party card as asset.

Back in the fall of 2012, not long after the New Democrats led by the late Jack Layton had become the official Opposition in Ottawa, the Globe and Mail breathlessly reported that the lobbying world was starting to pay attention to the NDP.

A few prominent New Democrats began to work in what practitioners prefer to call "government relations" -- for example, erstwhile NDP national director Robin Sears, who spent more than a little time professionally burnishing the reputation of former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Not here in Alberta, though. In late 2012 the Progressive Conservative Party was firmly in control, having just renewed itself under the leadership of premier Alison Redford after an only slightly nerve-wracking election that spring.

One of the oddities of the PC dynasty that ran Alberta for 43 years, seven months and 25 days until New Democratic Party Premier Designate Rachel Notley turned up on May 5, was that it actively discouraged professional and amateur lobbyists alike from even talking to opposition parties.

Amateurs not tied into the PC Establishment could cause themselves a lot of grief by not being aware of this reality -- proof that, here in Alberta at least, what you didn't know really could hurt you. The professionals all knew better, and happily ignored the Opposition, since like everyone else they assumed it didn't matter because the Tories were going to be in power forever …

Now that Alberta's political world has unexpectedly turned on its head, there's many a high-zoot lobbyist without a single Dipper's phone number in his or her cellular handset’s memory.

What’s more, the lobbying industry is not the only group that's going to have to scramble to adjust to life after an Orange Crush.

Politicized industries like retail liquor sales, horse racing, energy, property development and engineering may want to execute a strategic pivot or two in the way they do business, as will membership-based organizations like some building trades unions and the Alberta Medical Association that have been careful to maintain friendly relations with Tories.

For some, it will be easier to change course than others. Even an outspoken group like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is likely to find ways to work with a government that has so much power to impact its members' success.

Others, not so much… Here, in no particular order, are a just a few of the organizations small and large that are likely to find the transition to the new Orange Reality difficult, if not impossible:

-    Navigator Ltd., strategic political advisors to PC premiers Jim Prentice and Alison Redford and a beneficiary of controversial sole-source Alberta government contracts. We'll probably never know which election strategies Navigator came up with and which came from directly Alberta's last two premiers, but if you're only as good as your last job, it's safe to say that right now Navigator's name is mud.

-    Canadian Strategy Group, the lobbying firm established by former Edmonton PC Party VP Hal Danchilla, which has relied on close party connections like "senior advisor" Ron Liepert, the former PC energy and health minister and current federal Conservative candidate in Calgary-Signal Hill. Ron who?

-    Calder Bateman Communications Ltd., the successful advertising agency founded and run by Frank Calder and Margaret Bateman and long associated with the PC government. It certainly seems far less likely government contracts will flow Calder Bateman's way nowadays.

-    University of Calgary School of Public Policy, led by PC and Wildrose Party patron saint Jack Mintz and operating with some other U of C departments as if it were a publicly funded neoliberal think tank. It remains to be seen if an NDP government will be very enthusiastic about using limited public funds to finance ideologically motivated attacks on its policies.

-    Merit Contractors Association of Alberta, the anti-union lobby and benefits administrator for a group of non-union construction companies. For years, Merit had the ear of successive Alberta labour ministers and at times actually seemed to get to draft labour relations policy for them. Merit's bright ideas are unlikely to be viewed with much sympathy any more.

-    Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties, which for years has been like a PC Party farm team. Now, with what's left of the PC caucus acting as its own farm team, can there be much of a future for the thoroughly politicized AAMDC?

-    Christian Labour Association of Canada, a union that claims to represent workers on the basis of "Christian social principles" and has seen its Alberta membership grow to something like 30,000 thanks in part to a special designation granted by the Tories that let a large oilpatch employer shut out traditional unions in its favour. CLAC is viewed as a management-friendly pariah by the labour movement.

-    Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and Western Barley Growers Association, so-called "free-market" grain-growers' lobby groups that have together received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and other subsidies from the Alberta government throughout the four decades of Tory rule. Both are friendly to multinational agriculture corporations and vociferous opponents of the co-operative Canadian Wheat Board, dismantled in 2012 by the Harper Government, the remnants of which were recently sold off for a song to Saudi Arabian and U.S. interests.

-    Alberta Barley Commission and other government-mandated check-off organizations, created by the Tories and utilizing check-off funds collected on the sale of various agricultural commodities mostly to fund anti-CWB campaigns and legal challenges.

-    Alberta Electrical System Operator, the highly controversial entity created by the PCs in the late 1990s to transition the province's electrical system away from traditional regulation to a "market-based” approach. We all know what happened to our electrical bills after that, as we subsidized transmission lines to the United States and found ourselves locked into a dysfunctional, expensive and fragile coal-based centralized power-generation system that benefits a few large companies.

-     Alberta Energy Regulator, the supposedly arm's length energy industry regulator set up by the Tories in 2013 to run the development of energy resources in the province. Headed by the former president of CAPP, this industry-funded entity took over environmental, regulatory and safety monitoring activities previously conducted by impartial public officials of the Energy Resources Conservation Board and the environment ministry.

And after 43-plus years of Tory government, there's more, much more, than this. Indeed, it's going to take more than four years to muck out this particular barn.

Consider the Wild Rose Foundation, which hands out proceeds from the province's $1.5-billion annual lottery revenues to volunteer non-profit organizations, making it, arguably, the original pork barrel.

For more information about what this group does, go to its website at wildrosefoundation.ca -- Oh! Wait! It's disappeared!

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

CLARIFICATION: Numerous so-called “free-market” grain-growers’ lobby groups have together received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and other subsidies from the Alberta government throughout the four decades of Tory rule. The two individual organizations mentioned in this section received much smaller amounts. rabble.ca regrets the error.

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