Until yesterday, I had never heard of Robyn Luff. Not many people have, even though she is an elected member of the Alberta legislature.
Luff, as you may know by now, is one of the anonymous seat fillers that was elected, pretty much by accident, in the Orange Wave that swept over the province in the last election. Like all backbench government MLAs, she pretty much disappeared. The role of a backbench MLA is to be seen, but not heard. And if they insist on being heard, they must only parrot the party line.
This is the way it is for government types. When I was an opposition Liberal MLA from 2004-08, I almost felt sorry for government backbenchers. They had joyless, dreary jobs. Their primary duty was to fill a seat to make sure that there were just enough government MLAs to outnumber the opposition. They would weigh in on bills, but again, most of the time they just read statements prepared by their staff. On rare occasions, real discussion about a bill would break out, but not very often. Worse, these moments occurred during bill debates, which were watched by exactly the number of people who were in the chamber at the time.
Question Period is the highlight of an opposition MLAs’ day. The media are watching, the government is on high alert, the public (well, a handful of the public) watches on TV. A smart, difficult question could lead the news for a day. It was nerve-wracking for someone like me, but it was sort of fun, and important.
In Alberta, government MLAs are allowed to ask questions. But not just any question. And this is where MLA Luff comes in.
On Monday, Luff released a letter saying she would boycott the Legislature because she felt that she was being muzzled by Rachel Notley and her cabinet.
“I have felt bullied by the NDP leadership for over 3 1/2 years and it must stop,” she wrote. “Under Rachel Notley’s leadership, every power that MLAs are supposed to have to be able to represent their constituents in the legislature has been taken away or denied from the start.”
Luff said questions backbenchers ask of ministers in the house are written by the ministries for the backbencher to deliver. (We called them puffballs, and took great delight in mocking government MLAs forced into reading these pitiful statements.)
Luff also said backbenchers can lose the privilege of making a statement in the house if a previous statement is deemed inappropriate. She said party leadership decides who speaks on which bill, and statements and questions at committee hearings are all scripted. Those who step out of line fear punishment, such as losing a spot on a committee or chances to speak in the house.
“I have had members statements taken away, and (backbencher-sponsored) private members bills edited ‘til they weren’t what I intended.” She was told “not jumping when a (departmental) chief of staff told me to” has stalled her career.
Not surprisingly, Luff was kicked out of the NDP caucus Monday night.
This is damaging stuff for the NDP, which has always held itself as being above petty politics and the crass abuse of power. When a female backbencher claims a toxic work environment and bullying, in a government run by a woman with a near saintly reputation, you’ve got problems. She is the second Calgary female MLA to leave the party; three Calgary NDP MLAs have announced they will not be running for reelection.
The experts in the media and academia have been somewhat condescending to Luff, lecturing her that this is the way politics operates. But to those who don’t follow politics, or have no knowledge of party politics (which is to say, about 99.9% of the population) Luff’s letter is quite a shock. Backbench MLAs are grown adults, some of them quite accomplished (not so much with the NDP kiddie corps). They are forced to ask belittling “questions” that are really set ups for bragging by a minister. Consider the NDP MLA for my area, Lorne Dach.
Dach seems like a nice guy, doing all the stuff an MLA is supposed to do. But consider the “questions” Dach has asked in the legislature. (It took me a while to find these on Hansard, the record of everything said in the legislature. Dach barely utters a word.)
After years of setbacks and attempts to ignore the problem by the previous Conservative government, our NDP government has made significant strides in renewing the relationship between government and indigenous communities in Alberta. To the Minister of Indigenous Relations: what is the Alberta government doing to ensure that First Nations reserves have access to clean water?
Hard=hitting, right? His followup question was equally obsequious.
To the same minister. Conditions on reserves have traditionally been the responsibility of the federal government. It has pained me over these years to know that our former Conservative government refused to act on this file. Why has Alberta’s provincial government now finally chosen to act in this case in response to this issue?
His third question was to request a progress report.
Here’s another Dach “question”.
Given the lack, once again, of leadership under the previous government there has not been a significant investment in seniors and affordable housing in decades. I hear regularly from my constituents that there is an urgent need to create new spaces and renovate existing buildings. To the Minister of Seniors and Housing: how is the government addressing the deficit in affordable housing in the city of Edmonton?
Then he asked:
Oftentimes projects are announced and span a couple of years before completion. Given
that the provincial affordable housing strategy is intended to guide the investments in affordable housing, can the minister update the House on the ongoing projects across this province and how these fit with the provincial affordable housing strategy?
And then, this powerhouse conclusion:
Given that my constituents are also concerned about affordable home ownership, to the same minister: what is the government doing to support low-income Albertans, particularly newcomers to Canada hoping to own a home?
These are classic examples of a backbench questions. Non-controversial, not interesting, of no value to anyone other than a minister looking to brag about something. They are a waste of time, of no value to the constituents of the MLA asking the question, and rather humiliating for the MLA doing the asking.
Party unity if the backbone of our political system. Without it, we’d have dozens of independents and no parties. But the treatment of backbench MLAs is truly disgraceful. They are expected to be nothing more than trained seals, barking for fish. We elect them to represent US, not their party, and the way they are treated is shabby.
My guess is that Robyn Luff just couldn’t take the belittling role of a backbench MLA anymore, and called it quits. Good for her for bringing this situation to light.