Alberta MLA committee grills Public Affairs Bureau about political activities

Alberta MLA committee grills Public Affairs Bureau about political activities

Opposition MLAs tried but failed to peel back the layers of mystery behind the operations of the Alberta Public Affairs Bureau on Tuesday, during sometimes testy exchanges at a public accounts committee meeting.

Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt tried to get a breakdown from Corey Hogan, managing director of the PAB, of how many staff were considered "political" and how many employees held political party memberships.

As outgoing chair of the public accounts committee last year, Fildebrandt requested that the PAB appear before the committee to answer questions about its operations. Tuesday's appearance marked the first time the PAB appeared before the committee since the NDP formed government in May 2015.

"It's obvious there are many NDP partisans who've been brought into the ministry to do work, I won't name names," said Fildebrandt, who at that point was interrupted by a voice coming from his colleague's iPhone.

"Sorry, I'm not sure what you said," said Siri, Apple's personal digital assistant.

"Thank you, Siri," Fildebrandt said. "I didn't know our phones were allowed to heckle us."

Continuing his line of questioning, Fildebrandt pressed Hogan for answers on how the PAB was staffed.

"What proportion of staff within the public affairs bureau could be classified broadly as political, maybe not necessarily partisan, but political?" he asked.

"Certainly, that would be zero per cent," Hogan responded.

Fildebrandt accused the bureau of conducting "propaganda campaigns" for government policies. As an example, he cited the campaign behind the promotion of the climate leadership plan, saying it was $10-million of taxpayers' money spent to promote the policies of the party in power.

"Telling people to grow grass on their roof and change their light bulbs, these are obviously geared toward the NDP's ideology and worldview," Fildebrandt said in an interview after the meeting.

Fildebrandt's attack spilled over into question period, where he made similar comments.

That prompted government house leader Brian Mason to raise a point of order. A point of order is a way a member can draw attention to  comments they believe are in violation of the house rules.

Mason said Fildebrandt questioning the partisanship of PAB employees "not only demeans those individuals who have no recourse to defend themselves, but also undermines their ability to do their work."

But Wildrose house leader Nathan Cooper pointed out Fildebrandt refrained from mentioning anyone by name. Cooper said Fildebrandt was only doing what Mason himself was well known for while he was in opposition.

"The member opposite made a career out of criticizing this particular department, and that's exactly what we saw from the member for Strathmore-Brooks." 

Speaker Bob Wanner ruled on Mason's point of order by saying it was a matter of debate and didn't violate any procedural rules. But Wanner said some of the language in the house was "not very respectful."

After question period, Fildebrandt said he didn't mention anyone by name because he doesn't want the discussion to be about "personalities."

The public accounts committee was able to extract information from the PAB about what it does with information gathered during telephone town halls. The government conducted some recently as part of its pre-budget consultations.

Hogan said the data can be used to inform government decision makers in future, but is not used for voter identification or partisan purposes.

"You have my absolute assurance that if somebody were to do that," said Hogan, "it would be an extreme violation of our privacy laws. And that's certainly something we would take every step possible to stop."

On Tuesday afternoon, the Wildrose issued a news release that accused senior officials from the public affairs bureau and executive council of evading MLA questions about how taxpayer money is being used to promote the NDP agenda.

"The NDP government has taken partisanship in the Public Affairs Bureau to new heights," Fildebrandt said in a statement. "They refused to answer simple questions about partisan appointments controlling the PAB and the millions of taxpayer dollars that they spend on government advertising."

The public affairs bureau has been widely criticized by opposition parties over the years for being a bloated waste of taxpayer money.

While in opposition, Rachel Notley was a sharp critic of the politicalization of the bureau. In a June 2013 interview with CBC, she criticized the government of then-premier Alison Redford for inserting partisan statements into government news releases.

"The PC party sees the government of Alberta, and the taxpayers' dollars that we all provide them, as their political playground toy, and they see it as something they can do with whatever they please," Notley said at the time.