01/11/2014 04:00 EST | Updated 03/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Alison Redford's Building Alberta Campaign Draws Fire As Vanity Fare

EDMONTON - It's on road signs, government business cards, help-wanted ads, brochures and Twitter hashtags.

It's in photo ops, speeches, mailouts and as a tagline to every piece of news Premier Alison Redford's government puts out.

It's Building Alberta — a communications campaign Redford says is about informing and reassuring constituents, but opponents label an unethical and obscenely expensive political vanity ad campaign.

The only sure thing? Building Alberta is here to stay.

"It's not going to change for the next three years," Stefan Baranski, Redford's communications chief, said in an interview.

"It is the work of this government rolled up in a campaign, in a plan, that we were elected to deliver (on)."

Building Alberta, he said, evolved over the last year and a half as Baranski and his team worked to encapsulate the themes running through Redford's speeches and promises.

"It just permeated everything, it seemed, so that was a logical name for this plan. It was the Building Alberta plan."

Building Alberta comprises three sub-slogans: Investing in Families and Communities; Opening New Markets; and Living Within Our Means.

It's a promise to citizens and a compass needle to keep Redford's Progressive Conservative government on track.

"I don't view this as a branding campaign. I don't view this as an advertising campaign. That's far too simplistic," said Baranski.

It does, however, come with a seven-figure price tag.

Just over a week ago, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation revealed in a freedom of information request that $1 million was spent last year on 293 Building Alberta signs announcing everything from road restorations to building start-ups.

Another freedom of information request from the Wildrose party revealed that another $660,000 went to TV, Internet and newspaper ads, along with glossy mailouts and design work.

The results are increasingly visible.

Government announcements now resemble campaign events, with cheering supporters, balloons, and massive Building Alberta backdrop signs.

Announcements in December suggested that no new bit of news was too small or too routine for the Building Alberta treatment. For example:

— Associate minister Dave Quest stood beside a Building Alberta sign at the Calgary International Airport to announce that travellers could now stay out of the country for seven months a year and still be eligible for Alberta health benefits. The old limit was six months.

— Redford went to Edmonton's NorQuest College to announce extra funding for the school. A Building Alberta moment, with balloons and photo ops with students.

— Health Minister Fred Horne announced a new health advocate in front of a Building Alberta backdrop.

Redford told reporters this week, and told the legislature last month, that the Building Alberta signs are critical in the wake of heavy flooding that destroyed infrastructure in southern Alberta last June.

The signs, she said, let residents know that help is on the way.

"Putting up these signs shows the commitment that we have to the Building Alberta plan and the rebuilding Alberta plan. That is hope," Redford told the house on Dec. 3.

But the Building Alberta agenda has also proven to be somewhat selective, supplying ammunition to opponents who call it an ad campaign.

When ministers Dave Hancock and Doug Horner announced legislation in late November to remove the right of the province's largest union to file for arbitration, and instead impose upon it an austere collective bargaining agreement, it was done without any Building Alberta signs.

During the fall sitting, another sign-free moment came when Hancock called a news conference to complain about news stories that detailed the cover-up of 89 deaths of children in government care.

Hancock said the stories were not counterbalanced with enough good news.

Last Wednesday, Hancock's successor in the Human Services portfolio, Manmeet Bhullar, held a news conference that revealed hundreds more children had died while in indirect care by the province. Not a visible Building Alberta moment.

Rob Anderson of the Wildrose party and Derek Fildebrandt of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation say Building Alberta uses taxpayers' own money to try to inculcate them with a happy Pavlovian response to Redford's name.

Fildebrandt compared it to the federal government's Economic Action Plan sign campaign, but said Redford goes beyond that by dressing up her literature and Building Alberta signs in PC-party orange and blue and by having every road sign include her name and title.

"The federal Economic Action Plan advertising campaign is probably a five out of 10 on the partisanship scale. The Building Alberta campaign is probably an eight or nine," said Fildebrandt.

The government says the Building Alberta colours are non-PC shades of orange and blue, and notes that yellow and green are also used.

Anderson said when using taxpayers' money, the government must make sure there is a clear benefit, such as announcing road closures or flu clinics.

"There's no way a rational thinking human being can actually say that these signs are doing a public good," said Anderson.

"It's not for the benefit of the people of Alberta, and I think that's where you have to draw the line."

He said the $1.7 million spent in 2013 is cash that could have gone elsewhere in a province running an operational deficit and taking on billions of dollars in capital debt.

"That ($1.7 million) is 50 hip surgeries. That's well over 35 nurses. It's enough to keep the Michener Centre (care facility) open for a year," said Anderson.

"It reflects an atmosphere in the government that taxpayers serve them."

The Wildrose party buttressed its political argument in the last sitting when it revealed a leaked email from Redford's political adviser, Darren Cunningham.

Two months after the southern Alberta floods — and in the weeks leading up to a critical PC party vote of confidence on Redford's leadership — Cunningham, in the email, ordered the fast-tracking of Building Alberta signs, even if it meant tendering rules had to be broken.

"The premier would like to ensure that Building Alberta signage is up and in front of every flood-affected road, bridge, school, etc.," wrote Cunningham.

"I don't care if an RFP (request for proposal) is ready or not. We need a very visible commitment that the government is rebuilding."

The Wildrose also released leaked internal government rules on sign placement.

The rules direct that all signs must include Redford's name and title. Massive projects should look at having more than one sign and, where possible, placing ads on the construction fence.

Don't worry too much about signs in remote places, says the document. The key is location, location, location.

"Each ministry should select a location for the sign best suited for maximizing visibility to the general public," says the document.

As 2013 wound down, Building Alberta moved so fast even parliamentary democracy couldn't keep up, something that brought a sharp rebuke to Redford's team from legislature Speaker Gene Zwozdesky.

In October, Zwozdesky took the Tories to task for putting up Building Alberta signs advertising pending legislation affecting roads and school zones before the bill was even seen by legislators or introduced in the house.

To advertise government laws and decisions as done deals before politicians have even had a change to examine them is contempt of the legislature, said Zwozdesky, the Tory member for Edmonton Mill Creek.

He said while the roads bill campaign rollout did not cross the line into parliamentary contempt, "the spirit of the law has been negatively affected."

A month later, Zwozdesky ruled the Tories were, indeed, in contempt of the house when a glossy full-colour Building Alberta brochure was mailed out to every Alberta home proudly announcing that politicians had taken a multi-year pay freeze and were clamping down on public sector wages.

The problem was that neither of those decisions had even been debated or introduced in the legislature.

Zwozdesky demanded — and got — a public apology from then deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk.

Zwozdesky warned Redford and her team to not to treat the house as a nettlesome box to be checked off, citing a federal speaker's earlier ruling that "we are a parliamentary democracy, not a so-called executive democracy, nor a so-called administrative democracy."

Political scientist Keith Brownsey said while Building Alberta is more sophisticated and pervasive than previous campaigns, the selling concept is as old as politics.

"There's nothing new here," said Brownsey, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"It's part of the evolution of media-government relations."

Baranski said he hopes his opponents keep complaining.

Knocking down Building Alberta, he said, reminds people that Alison Redford is Building Alberta.

"Please keep talking about it," he said.

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