Turfed Alberta NDP backbencher wont run in next election, cites culture of fear

Turfed Alberta NDP backbencher won\t run in next election, cites \culture of fear\
Robyn Luff fires back at Alberta NDP after they kick her out of caucus
Jason Kenney speaks to the media at his first convention as leader of the United Conservative Party in Red Deer, Alta., on May 6, 2018. Alberta's opposition leader Jason Kenney wants to see hard numbers about the cost of Calgary hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics and remains wary about the effectiveness of any hard cap on provincial government contributions if the event were to go ahead. Jeff McIntosh / THE CANADIAN PRESS

If you’re wondering which category United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney falls into, it’s definitely the latter.

Since I have come out publicly, I have had staff members, party members, and caucus members tell me, all confidentially, that they have felt this too, but are too scared to come forward, and I will not breach their trust in me. The greatest blow of all is to be told my fellow NDP colleagues have voted me out, and that they are all complicit, every one of them.

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But first to Kenney, who has been a puzzle to the legislature’s press gallery this fall session, not because of anything he’s said, but rather because he hasn’t said anything.

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In the week MLAs have been back in their seats and public attention has heightened on the legislature, Kenney has yet to make himself available to media even once.

Journalists got finally fed up last Thursday and made the decision to stake out the UCP caucus office prior to Question Period. That culminated in the bizarre sight of Kenney being tailed by a gaggle of reporters on his way to the chamber but refusing to stop for questions.

Calgary-East MLA Robyn Luff said she will not join another political party after she was kicked out of the NDP caucus for protesting a culture of fear and discrimination.

Press gallery members decided not to try the same tactic on Monday, and Kenney made sure there would be no repeat by heading into the chamber early.

For an opposition leader to actively avoid publicity is unusual behaviour to say the least, but is especially odd for a seasoned politician like Kenney who has shown he is quite capable of holding his own with journalists.

It’s also a little disturbing, and makes one wonder if Kenney plans to follow a recent trend among politicians — particularly those of the conservative ilk — who have taken to regularly shunning and attacking the media.

On Tuesday, the MLA issued a statement: I am very disappointed in the decision of the NDP to remove me from Caucus, Luff began.

Since session began, he’s issued statements, posted on social media and been present in the Question Period to spar with Premier Rachel Notley on unemployment rates and revenue projections.

Party officials have also insisted Kenney planned to scrum with media the first day of session but was prevented when legislature business ran long, while another scrum had to be cancelled because he was sick.

Luff said she will send a letter to The Speaker of the Alberta Legislative Assembly to suggest changes.

As for the rest of the time, the party’s excuse for Kenney’s inability to find even 10 minutes for the legislature media has been a “busy” schedule.

Some of those topics are uncomfortable, including why people with hateful views seem attracted to the UCP, how the party plans to screen thousands of new members, and whether the party has collaborated with political action committees.

His refusal so far to engage in a back-and-forth with journalists allows those issues to fester, but also gives the NDP an opening to characterize their rival as running scared from accountability.

But while Kenney has been taking heat for talking too little, the NDP on Monday was dealing with the fallout from a backbencher who said far too much.

In an extraordinary letter that got her turfed from caucus, Calgary MLA Robyn Luff announced she would not be sitting in the legislature temporarily to protest what she calls a “toxic” culture of bullying.

Luff’s major complaint is she cannot adequately represent her constituents because all of her outlets to do so — question period, votes on legislation, members’ statements, etc. — are scripted according to the wishes of government leaders.

Almost immediately, UCP house Leader Jason Nixon seized upon the letter as evidence that his party is more open than the NDP to dissenting viewpoints — a ludicrous assertion to anyone who watched his caucus walk out in unison from last session’s Bill 9 debate around abortion clinic bubble zones.

Other opposition MLAs characterized Luff’s actions as courageous, and I suppose they were in a way.

Luff is correct that a conversation is long overdue around the state of our parliamentary system, and I share her frustrations about the scripted questions and responses the NDP uses.

Yet much of Luff’s letter reads like typical gripes from other backbenchers who have finally tired of being part of a whipped, partisan system.

One has to wonder what Luff expected when she signed on to run for office, or why she waited 3-1/2 years to come forward.

Yes, the life of a backbencher typically isn’t much fun. But that’s hardly a new phenomenon, and Luff should’ve known a party facing long odds to get re-elected isn’t suddenly going to let its members be openly critical of government policy.

As well, Luff failed to choose from the approved list of options for unfulfilled MLAs — sit as an independent, cross the floor to another party, or decline to run for re-election — in favour of a much stranger path, refusing to take part in any legislature proceedings.

In effect, she is protesting her inability to represent constituents by choosing not to represent constituents.

While it’s easy to sympathize with her plight, in this case Luff might have been better served by remembering that silence sometimes speaks volumes.

In the rich history of Alberta legislature upheavals, nothing matches former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith’s floor-crossing with nine of her MLAs on Dec. 18, 2014.

That’s the penalty for more than 10 days absence from the legislature for reasons other than illness, injury, bereavement or official business.

The former NDP member, now officially an Independent, started skipping sittings on Oct. 29 to protest what she publicly calls the NDP culture of fear and bullying.

Quickly punted from the NDP caucus — the least surprising political act of 2018 — Luff now vows to continue her protest by refusing to show up in the house.

In my overlong experience, no other Alberta MLA has ever publicly declared a boycott of the legislature.

But this is the legislature. And the prime duty of every member is to be in there on behalf of constituents, arguing and cajoling toward the best result possible.

An Independent member can speak without concern for party rules or discipline. Independents may be lonely, their careers tend to be short, but exile makes them the freest people in elected politics.

In fact, they have more freedom of expression than almost anybody in society, because legislature privilege grants them virtual immunity from lawsuit.

It can even be fun. Just ask Derek Fildebrandt, whose various stages of kicked-outness are almost too complex to chronicle.

As an Independent, and now leader of his one-person Freedom Conservative caucus, Fildebrandt routinely blasts the UCP and NDP alike. He lives in perfect harmony with his natural cranky state.

So, if Luff wants her arguments about the NDP to be credible, she should get back in there and make them.

Remember the United Conservative Party’s refusal to debate Bill 9, which expanded no-harassment zones around abortion clinics?

That happened only last June. UCP members quietly filed out of the house whenever a vote was called. While debate was going on, they silently pretended not to notice.

This too was apparently unique in Alberta history. It was widely and properly condemned. If the official Opposition won’t oppose, what happens to democracy?

Luff’s action isn’t much different in principle. She’s another elected official refusing to do her duty.

There is a level of naivete to Luff’s actions that should elicit sympathy. It’s kind of pathetic, in fact.

Premier Rachel Notley leads an emergency cabinet meeting over Trans Mountain in Edmonton on Jan. 31, 2018. David Bloom/Postmedia

She appears to believe that her charges of bullying, levelled against Notley and the entire NDP structure, would help solve the problem.

“I have chosen to abstain from the legislature because I wanted to draw attention to the lack of representation and fear and intimidation I felt. I was also hoping coming forward would lead to changes.

“The greatest blow of all is to be told my fellow NDP colleagues have voted me out, and that they are all complicit, every one of them.”

Notley runs a command-and-control shop where officials can lord it over MLAs. She has refused to satisfy boiling caucus ambitions by shuffling cabinet.

There’s no doubt that almost everything backbench MLAs say in the legislature is strictly scripted. Intense partisanship creates a sclerotic, suffocating, rigid system that often profoundly shocks idealistic newcomers.

None of this is admirable. But no Alberta government — certainly not the UCP — is likely to be much different.