Sometimes, small things can be the most revealing.
The Alberta government’s hyper-aggressive response to a flawed news release may fit into that category.
This week, Premier Alison Redford’s government came under fire for the way it lit into the opposition parties.
Their end-of-session news release did not stop at highlighting the government’s legislative achievements, featuring 10 new pieces of legislation.
It also took a cheap partisan political shot at its opponents.
“While the opposition focused on an agenda of unprecedented personal attacks, Premier Redford and the government caucus remained focused on the issues that matter to Albertans,” the government news release said.
Opposition parties cried foul.
They say Redford’s administration used tax dollars not to advance the interests of Albertans or the Alberta government writ large, but to further the political interests of the Progressive Conservative party.
The Conservatives have ample internal funds for that sort of political activity. Winning an election, as they did last spring, will fill up party coffers in a hurry, from donors interested in doing business with government.
There was a lot of dirty Tory laundry to be aired in the fall legislative sitting. It included:
• lavish, wasteful spending on trips for party high rollers to the London Olympics;
• an inquiry into allegations of health care queue jumping by people close ties to the Conservative government;
• a fat government contract awarded to a law firm employing the premier’s former husband, who remains a close political adviser;
• a $440,000 cheque from Daryl Katz to the Progressive Conservative party in the waning days of the spring election campaign, when the party’s war chest was almost tapped out.
Katz, who owns the Edmonton Oilers, would love nothing more than millions of provincial dollars to fund a new downtown arena.
The feisty Wildrose Party and the New Democratic Party routinely made political life uncomfortable for Redford and her troops this fall.
That’s their job.
Clearly, the political landscape has changed in Alberta, despite the fact that Redford’s Conservatives still hold 61 of 87 seats in the legislature.
They captured only 44 per cent of the popular vote in April, off 20 per cent from the 2008 election.
Meanwhile, the Wildrose Party’s share rose five-fold to 34.3 per cent of ballots cast.
If Redford’s Conservatives want to build public confidence and enhance their standing among Albertans, however, low-brow tactics like the pit-bull defence of a flawed news release are not the way to do it.
News releases are written daily by government communications staffers.
In most cases, they are not policy statements and don’t get close advance scrutiny from cabinet ministers.
When something goes awry on a small matter, a confident government would respectfully acknowledge that fact.
Instead, what Redford’s government has done is take a page from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s attack-style playbook.
Harper insists that government employees far removed from the political fray refer to his administration in a manner designed to enhance its political fortunes.
In 2006, his government fired a senior federal scientist who repeatedly declined to use the phrase “Canada’s new government” as directed.
Public outrage ultimately led to the sacked scientist being reinstated.
Last year, however, a directive went out to all federal civil servants, telling them to use the phrase “the Harper government” rather than “the Canadian government” in all communication.
That’s just lowbrow and cheesy.
It forces non-partisan civil servants to look like party acolytes.
Most government communication — at the municipal, provincial or federal level — is not politically partisan.
Nor should it be.
It should give citizens information they need and deserve to know.
The dust-up in the Alberta legislature this week shows that Harper’s approach is moving into provincial politics as well.
This is not a positive trend.
For “the Harper government,” it’s enveloped in the practice of using taxpayers’ dollars for constant political campaigning.
For the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, it looks like a fragile government, running scared.
Joe McLaughlin is a retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.