Alberta government staffers told to take day off to campaign in advance of leadership vote

In advance of a leadership vote for Premier Jason Kenney, Alberta government political staffers received emails this week compelling them to take Friday off work and volunteer to call supporters.

The deadline for party members to register to vote in the April 9 leadership review in Red Deer is midnight on Saturday.

The premier has lagged in most public opinion polls and faces criticism for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He and his team are tasked with persuading enough party members to go to Red Deer in person and vote for him to remain at the party’s helm.

Earlier this week, people who work for the Kenney government received emails urgently requesting they book Friday off work and volunteer their Saturdays to make phone calls, according to emails obtained by CBC News.

Government staffers contacted for this story said they did not feel comfortable commenting, for fear of losing their jobs.

The emails, sent by a cabinet minister’s chief of staff, say workers should be participating unless they have a medical appointment, wedding or another critical commitment.

The emails asked them to sign up on a publicly viewable Google document, which, as of late Thursday, showed more than 70 people, including press secretaries and chiefs of staff, signed up to make calls for part or all of Friday. 

The chief of staff said they would be checking back with people who didn’t follow through on their commitment to volunteer.

The premier’s press secretary, Justin Brattinga, said it is not uncommon for political staff to take time off to volunteer on political campaigns.

“Any staff who do so will be required to take time off,” he said in an email.

University of Calgary political science professor Lisa Young says it’s common for political staffers to be expected to volunteer for their party. That’s how most of them earned their roles, she said.

They shouldn’t do party business while at work on the public dime, she said.

Pressuring employees to take a day off work to volunteer steps into an ethical grey area, she said.

Although the emails don’t explicitly say jobs are on the line, Young said there’s an implication there could be repercussions for failing to participate.

“This is not subtle,” Young said. “[It] really does raise some questions, particularly for a staffer who might not feel that that’s how they want to spend their vacation day, who might not be supportive of the premier staying on as party leader.”

Young said the call for staff to volunteer is a sign that Kenney and his team don’t see the leadership review result as a slam dunk.

NDP leader Rachel Notley said the messages are a sign the government is too focused on party infighting and not on the challenges facing government and Albertans.

“The staff who have been hired to do the work of the people should be focused on doing that,” she said. “They should not be focused on leaving early to make phone calls for their boss.”

Brian Jean returns to the legislature

The deadline to sign up to vote in the leadership review comes days after Brian Jean was elected in a Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection. He is openly campaigning to unseat Kenney as leader, and encouraging party members to oust the premier in Red Deer.

Brian Jean returns to the legislature on March 17, 2022, as MLA-elect for the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche. Jean returns to politics after a four-year absence with the goal of unseating UCP leader and Premier Jason Kenney. (Janet French/CBC)

The UCP MLA-elect, who will be sworn in next month, appeared at the legislature Thursday. Speaker Nathan Cooper introduced Jean as a guest, and he waved from the public gallery while MLAs applauded.

At least seven UCP MLAs stood up in the house while applauding him. Kenney was absent from the chamber, as were several cabinet ministers.

Jean told reporters he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to ask government staffers to take time off to campaign for the premier.

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