About those civil service campaigning memos: Reflexive Toryism runs deep in Alberta, too deep to just ‘rescind’

Posted on April 15, 2015, 2:20 am
10 mins

PHOTOS: An Alberta Public Service Commission message to civil servants. Actual public service bulletin board notices may not appear exactly as illustrated, and certainly do not in that colour! Below: Premier Jim Prentice and Acting Deputy Minister of Justice Kim Armstrong.

Now, about those directives sent to Alberta Justice employees and other civil servants instructing them to inform their supervisors if they planned to take part in the provincial election campaign, even if they planned to do it on their own time …

The CBC reported that one of the memos, sent to Alberta Justice employees on April 7 by Acting Deputy Minister Kim Armstrong, instructed the department’s civil servants that if they “were volunteering, even if it is just on your own time, please let your supervisor know.”

PrenticeAn attachment to the same note went ever farther, though, stating that the deputy minister “must be notified in advance of any political activity by a member of the public service.”

Chilling effect? D’ya think?

This may not exactly be “Memogate,” but it illustrates a serious problem in a province that’s been run by the same Progressive Conservative Party for nigh on 44 years that can’t simply be “rescinded” in a Facebook post by the premier.

We have to admit that, when he got wind of the memoranda thanks to a report by CBC Edmonton, Premier Jim Prentice reacted the right way, countermanding the controversial demand almost as fast as you could say “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Mr. Prentice – who unlike most members of his party actually seems to get it that we have a written constitution in Canada now, complete with guarantees of specific fundamental rights – had someone quickly pen a note on his Facebook page calling the memo “ridiculous and offensive” and adding that “anyone who works for the Government of Alberta has the right to volunteer on political campaigns on their own time and I encourage them to do so.”

End of story, or so the premier profoundly hopes.

But the problem goes deeper than can be fixed by simply overruling one or two memos with an announcement on social media, and it may well have only been seen as a problem by the ruling PCs because they’re not polling as well as they expected to be when they started making plans for the early election campaign now under way.

kim-armstrongAt any rate, it shouldn’t come as news to anyone who reads this blog that Mr. Prentice and his PCs are on petty shaky ground right now with almost anyone who works in a public sector job in Alberta.

Some previous PC premiers, like Ralph Klein, didn’t really have to worry about what public employees thought. Alison Redford ignored them as soon as she’d gotten what they wanted from them – she was in favour of public services and the people who did them in 2011 and 2012 when it looked as if the Wildrose Party might win the election, but she stopped listening to public employees once she’d won.

Alas for Mr. Prentice, Ms. Redford’s often outrageous actions have left him with a legacy of distrust he now can’t ignore.

This is especially true with numerous polls indicating support for the New Democratic Party led by Rachel Notley is surging in the Edmonton area, which, not incidentally, is home to thousands of public employees of many types, including civil servants, health care workers, educators and employees of quasi-independent boards and agencies.

Maybe Mr. Klein could ignore them, and maybe Ms. Redford thought she could, but Mr. Prentice has to know he cannot.

He has already demonstrated this by reversing Redford Government policies on public service pensions, and with the spin he put on his government’s decision to repeal Ms. Redford’s unconstitutional labour legislation, although it had little chance of survival in the courts.

Nevertheless, to give the man his due, he must have been horrified when he learned his loyal senior civil servants had been sending memos to the front-liners ordering them to let their bosses know if they planned to be campaigning for anyone. (By which you can read, of course, “campaigning for anyone who isn’t a Progressive Conservative.”)

The underlying problem that leads to nonsense like this seeming reasonable, even laudable, to the people who come up with it is how deeply embedded the PC Party is in Alberta after nearly 44 years of power as a virtual one-party government.

Given the complex and ubiquitous connections among the PC Party, cash-laden oilpatch bagmen, right-wing think tanks, the top levels of the civil service, civic governments and anyone who wants to get anything done in this province, it’s almost surprising that the memorandums didn’t instruct civil servants to tell their bosses if they planned to vote for someone other than the PCs!

Yesterday, according to the CBC, the people who issued the directives were scrambling to explain that, actually, what they’d meant all along was what the premier had just said.

The memos were just supposed to be friendly reminders to consider existing guidelines – you know, like not doing anything that interferes with regular work – and didn’t mean what they said at all. This is not, by the way, the first time Ms. Armstrong has faced a controversy involving emails.

Regardless, the premier’s Facebook notice notwithstanding, the PC mentality has certainly not changed – and it’s never going to change if we keep the PCs around, whatever Mr. Prentice says now.

Obviously, weeks before an election as the entire public sector is viewing this premier and his party through jaundiced eyes was not the optimum moment to send out an intimidating memo, and Mr. Prentice obviously understands that much.

Still, the instinct to communicate the chilling effect the memo was designed to instil lingers in the PC establishment and isn’t going to go away just because Mr. Prentice says it will.

Despite the embarrassment, the message has now been successfully communicated to civil servants – and others who work for and with the government – that campaigning for the opposition is a bad idea, and they’d better watch it.

Indeed, if you work for a charitable board that relies on government funds, for example, and you so much as Tweet out a protest about a PC policy or statement, you can expect to get a firm warning that your funding may be impacted and your clients will suffer if the criticism continues. This is Alberta. This actually happens.

And, presumably, it’s going to continue because no one has leaked that particular letter yet.

There is only one way to fix this, and that is to give the PCs a spell in opposition.

That would provide a clear message to any government to behave itself when it comes to Albertans’ fundamental democratic rights.

Governments, as they say, are like underwear, and benefit from a change from time to time.

This PC government has been around so long it comes as a surprise to its insiders that it really stinks when they tell citizens they can’t take part in a political campaign without their boss’s permission.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

7 Comments to: About those civil service campaigning memos: Reflexive Toryism runs deep in Alberta, too deep to just ‘rescind’

  1. Keith

    April 15th, 2015

    From the FOIPP Act:
    “33 No personal information may be collected by or for a public body unless
    (a) the collection of that information is expressly authorized by an enactment of Alberta or Canada,
    (b) that information is collected for the purposes of law enforcement, or
    (c) that information relates directly to and is necessary for an operating program or activity of the public body.”

    Regarding:
    “the (deputy minister) must be notified in advance of any political activity by a member of the public service.”

    Will the deputy minister keep all this information in his head, or will records be kept? These records would constitute a “personal information bank” and Section 87.1 of the the FOIPP Act requires disclosure of:

    -the title or name of the information bank
    -the location of the information bank
    -what kind of personal information is contained in the information bank
    -what categories of individuals the information pertains to
    -why the information was collected and how it is used or disclosed
    -the legal authority for the collection of the information

    http://www.servicealberta.ca/foip/resources/directory-of-personal-info.cfm

    Reply
  2. Sam Gunsch

    April 15th, 2015

    The embedding of ‘reflexive Toryism’ in the political culture of AB was arguably launched under the Klein regime.

    Political observers such as Mark Lisac documented how Ralph Klein’s team implemented a corporatist governance system for AB. Civil servants, along with ordinary citizens, soon came to learn their survival was dependent on obesiance to the PCAA and their joint venture partners in the dominant industry sectors: oil/gas/tarsands, logging, irrigators, etc.

    The best description and analysis of AB’s PCAA’s corporatist governance from Klein thru to Prentice is found in Mark Lisac’s book The Klein Revolution, IMO:

    http://www.amazon.ca/The-Klein-Revolution-Mark-Lisac/dp/0920897835

    Some other observers that explain why the PC’s will likely survive this election include:
    https://albertaviews.ab.ca/2014/08/26/one-party-state/
    How 43 years of PC rule has compromised democracy in Alberta.
    by Steve Patten
    ================

    http://www.albertaviews.ab.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/dabbssep2006.pdf

    Ralph Klein’s Real Legacy: Forget Debt-Slashing
    The premier’s greatest acheivement is a one-party state so deeply entrenched that it may never be dislodged.
    by Frank Dabbs

    ==================

    https://albertaviews.ab.ca/2011/10/04/petrostate/

    Petrostate: Our overdeveloped sense of prosperity maybe the cause of our underdeveloped sense of democracy.

    Ian Urquhart
    =================

    These excerpts below from Lisac’s book, The Klein Revolution, are IMO, relevant to the Prentice budget and policies.

    http://www.amazon.ca/The-Klein-Revolution-Mark-Lisac/dp/0920897835

    re: implementing corporatism as governing ideology and method:

    excerpt: “When I look at the way things are going and write about a drift toward a corporate state I mean a different method of government, not just a government influenced by business.”

    excerpt: “…the effect of such ideas has always been the same: to make it easier for part of society to impose its will on another part”

    excerpt: “Gov’t sorting out who’s in control:

    e.g. the Prentice 2015 budget that doesn’t raise corporate taxes but raises citizen’s taxes.

    excerpt: “Who is running things here? That’s far more than a rhetorical question.
    Someone will end up running things. Who it is will say a lot about what kind of government we have. “

    It separates political decisions from elections.
    … the effect of such ideas has always been the same: to make it easier for part of society to impose its will on another part.”

    Reply
    • Sam Gunsch

      April 15th, 2015

      This phrase was not an accurate choice:
      ‘Civil servants, along with ordinary citizens, soon came to learn their survival’

      You could survive of course. Just not prosper or participate meaningfully in public policy discussion.

      So more precisely I ought to have said this: ‘Civil servants, along with ordinary citizens, soon came to learn’ that under Klein gov’t methods, their career progress or in the case of ordinary citizens, their access to meaningfully participate in public policy,’ was dependent on obesiance to the PCAA and their joint venture partners in the dominant industry sectors: oil/gas/tarsands, logging, irrigators, etc. ‘

      Again, the phrase joint venture being Lisac’s coinage for Alberta’s corporatism launched by Klein.

      Much of my opinion is based on Lisac’s and other observers documenting.

      For example: ‘The Corporate State’ is the title of Chapter 9 in Lisac’s Klein Revolution, and is on the best chapters setting out how citizens learned about corporatist methods: in the main, public policy consultations were heavily managed to hear from those who supported the pre-determined agenda.

      Even long-time PC party members discovered that to dissent might get you ostracized as a ‘whiner’.

      So civil servants learned to survive by producing from the consultations the public policy answers #PCAA crew wanted. And that producing any reports that didn’t support gov’t agenda was potentially a career ender.

      Kevin Taft brought some light to that issue:
      http://www.amazon.ca/Shredding-Public-Interest-One-Party-Government/dp/0888642954

      And of course even prior to Klein, civil servants had lived in fear of Steve West who on occasion took the axe to whole departments almost without and bragged about it. Prentice appears unwilling to follow suit. WRP might.

      During the Klein years however, citizens in rural AB were labelled ‘special interest’ enviro’s, if they publicly raised silly little concerns about the full-scale industrialization, by oil/tar/gas development and logging, of northern forests because it seemed likely to ultimately result in silly little problems like entire species going extinct, or polluted rivers.

      It seems to me that the good Alberta citizen who tried to participate in democratic life came to realize through the 1990’s that the Klein gov’t method of requiring citizens go into closed-door ‘public’ consultations that industry and government sponsored/managed/rigged was what good and normal AB citizens ought to do.

      If you weren’t willing to accept your seat at the ‘table’, then you might even get direct warnings as in Ty Lund’s words as environment minister, ‘the train is leaving’, meaning obviously that your views won’t be considered. That is, it was made quite clear, that raising your concerns publicly outside gov’t process was pretty much futile.

      And when you joined the process, you accepted the rules of not speaking to the media about the discussions/negotiations with industry over public policy.

      Come to the table under their terms. Or be marginalized from meaningfully participating in public policy.
      Neat trick, that.
      Standard in a one-party corporatist state. As opposed to the theory of democracy.

      So, I don’t know who would think civil servants need memos to know that openly being offside with the PCAA has significant risks.

      And of course, in this regard, Harper’s just been emulating the PCAA methods since Klein. AB politics have gone national.

      Reply
  3. jerrymacgp

    April 15th, 2015

    This seems to offer an opportunity to engage in a bit of harmless speculation about the fallout of a change in government after this election is over. There is no tradition in Westminster-style parliamentary government of a wholesale changing of the guard in the civil service when there is a change in government. The public service is supposed to be neutral and non-partisan, and serves whatever government is elected, left, right or centrist.

    However, Alberta is an exception. The PCs have been so entrenched for so long, and have their tentacles in so many areas of public life, that if they are tossed out of office, the new government may need to engage in a US-style purge of the senior public service. If the Wildrose gets in, they may have to fire most if not all of the Tories’ Deputy Ministers; if the NDP wins, the hatchet may need to also swing at the ADM level, if not even deeper. If this is not done, you can expect the highly-politicized senior bureaucracy to undermine a new government at every turn.

    Regardless of whether the new government is Wildrose or NDP, they will also probably have to also swing a machete at the ABCs, as those have been key repositories of Tory patronage, and cannot be left untouched.

    Reply
    • Sub-Boreal

      April 15th, 2015

      Please translate for BCer looking on with interest: ABC = ?

      Reply
      • Ward

        April 15th, 2015

        Agencies, Boards and Commissions.

        Reply
      • jerrymacgp

        April 16th, 2015

        Sorry about that. Agencies, Boards & Commissions, such as the Alberta Energy Regulator, Alberta Gaming & Liquor Commission, and of course the largest of them all, Alberta Health Services.

        Reply

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