Alberta Politics
Calgary-East MLA Robyn Luff (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Disillusioned with discipline, MLA from Calgary vows not to sit in Legislature, is swiftly ejected from NDP caucus

Posted on November 06, 2018, 1:49 am
10 mins

Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian aphorist and theoretician of war, famously observed that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”

Something like the opposite – that politics is the prosecution of war by other means, or darn close anyway – is likely true as well.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

I hope I offend no gentle readers by describing politics in warlike terms. I do so because the metaphor helps explain the sudden decision yesterday by Robyn Luff, MLA for Calgary-East, not to sit in the Legislature, and her swift ejection thereafter by the NDP Caucus.

While this situation is bound to prompt a few easy shots from the Opposition benches about Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s style of generalship, privately the reasons for Ms. Luff’s departure are likely to make their blood run cold.

As has been observed here many times, if Premier Notley is anything, she is tough. And she has been lucky in politics too. As in generalship, good luck and disciplined toughness are among the most valuable qualities for political leadership.

Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Ms. Luff unexpectedly told media yesterday morning she would refuse to sit in the Legislature to protest what she described as “a culture of fear and intimidation” in the government caucus.

NDP insiders knew Ms. Luff had been having some difficulty dealing with the many restrictions put on an elected representative in a modern Canadian Legislature, but they hadn’t expected the problem to unravel so quickly or thoroughly. Judging from recent content on Ms. Luff’s social media pages, neither did she.

The culture of fear, “leads to MLAs being unable to properly represent their constituents in the Legislature,” Ms. Luff wrote in her note to media. “I have felt bullied by the NDP leadership for over three and a half years and it must stop.” She pointed to Ms. Notley as the principal reason for what she called the loss of every power MLAs are supposed to have to represent their electors.

It is hard not to have some sympathy for Ms. Luff. But she has come up against the reality of Parliamentary government that, while theory assigns significant power to MLAs, party discipline means they don’t actually have very much.

Alberta Party MLA Karen McPherson (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

This may not be the best of all worlds, but without significant electoral reform – always unlikely – it is the one we inhabit. This includes Ms. Luff, as was brought home to her by the government’s swift announcement last night she had been removed from the NDP Caucus.

“The decision to remove Ms. Luff was arrived at in a meeting of NDP MLAs held this evening in Edmonton,” a terse caucus news release stated. “Owing to Ms. Luff’s actions, NDP MLAs have lost confidence in her ability to participate as a productive and trustworthy member of the government caucus.”

So the Opposition may have a day or two of fun, but it is unlikely their leader – who is of the same mind as Premier Notley on this topic – will make too much of it. After all, it didn’t take Jason Kenney very long to toss his “Grassroots Guarantee” over the side, for much the same reason he desires to impose iron discipline on his caucus just as Premier Notley does on hers.

Ms. Luff’s complaint is commonplace among backbenchers in government or opposition. Nothing ever comes of it because any party in our Parliamentary system foolish enough to free its MLAs to represent their constituents as they wish would be headed for the ash heap of history.

Let me put it this way: If we didn’t have strong leaders and tough party discipline in the Legislature, we would have to invent them to get anything done.

Voters get this. They don’t mind tough leaders. Indeed, they prefer them. If you doubt me, just watch how they vote.

Ms. Notley has always understood this. Since winning a majority government in 2015, she has been remarkably effective forging a highly disciplined caucus out of a group of inexperienced MLAs. That is one reason why, despite trailing in the polls, political pundits are reluctant to write the NDP off.

The only other NDP MLA elected in the Orange Wave of 2015 to leave the Government Caucus seems to have understood this.

When Karen McPherson resigned from the NDP caucus just over a year ago, she did so gracefully, saying of her former colleagues, “I wish nothing but the best for them.” She expressed her disquiet with the polarized state of Alberta’s provincial politics and only gently criticized the government. She sat as an Independent for a spell and later joined the Alberta Party.

Yesterday, the MLA for Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill told a reporter “I can certainly understand where Robyn is coming from.”

Alberta politics is full of surprises, but I wouldn’t read into this there’s any danger of a caucus revolt in the NDP, although such things have happened from time to time over the years.

For his part, I’m certain Mr. Kenney, enduring constant bozo eruptions among his fractious inherited United Conservative Party MLAs, dreams of being able to exert the same level of control. After the next general election, win or lose, I expect he will.

In the end, Ms. Luff sounded a bit like Judy Benjamin, the character played by Goldie Hawn in the 1980 comedy Private Benjamin.

“I did join the army,” Private Benjamin tries to explain to her drill instructor. “But I joined a different army. I joined the one with the condos, and the private rooms …”

Like your drill instructor, I’m here to tell you all: “There is no other army.

NDP moves to cap municipal vote donations

The more significant political news story yesterday was not as entertaining to write about, so naturally it got short shrift.

Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Still, the government’s announcement it is introducing legislation that will ban corporate and union donations from municipal politics, as well as lowering contribution limits, has the potential be far more meaningful than the departure of a naïve and disenchanted MLA.

Introduced by Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson, the Act to Renew Local Democracy in Alberta will empower the Alberta Election Commissioner to investigate, prosecute and enforce rules related to campaign finance and third-party advertising.

“Active oversight by an independent enforcement body helps to ensure integrity in our electoral process. It not only holds to account those who break the rules, but deters others from doing so and helps voters maintain trust in their elections,” said Elections Commissioner Lorne Gibson in the government’s news release.

The legislation will cover elections in municipalities, school boards, Métis Settlements and irrigation districts. It will lower contributions to $4,000 province-wide for municipal elections, as well as $4,000 for school board elections, the release said. It will also cut the legal campaign period from the current four years to one year and limit fund-raising and contributions to that time frame.

Significantly, it will require campaign finance disclosures from all candidates – which will be examined and enforced by provincial officials, not municipalities that are often unwilling to enforce even obvious violations by well-connected or troublesome local candidates.

19 Comments to: Disillusioned with discipline, MLA from Calgary vows not to sit in Legislature, is swiftly ejected from NDP caucus

  1. Geoffrey Pounder

    November 6th, 2018

    “Owing to Ms. Luff’s actions, NDP MLAs have lost confidence in her ability to participate as a productive and trustworthy member of the government caucus.”

    Wonderful irony. It is precisely the NDP leadership’s refusal to allow Ms. Luff to “participate as a productive and trustworthy member of the government caucus” that led to her complaint and withdrawal.

    Discipline is one thing; muzzling, stifling, and neutralizing MLAs to the point they can’t do their jobs is another.
    If backbenchers are mere seatwarmers, and if all the NDP Govt requires of Ms. Luff is her vote, they could set up a wooden statue at her desk, and Ms. Luff could stay home.

    The fact that other parties are the same or worse does not justify the strangulation of democratic institutions by “progressive” parties. This is not how government is supposed to work.
    Apologies for the Premier’s power-tripping merely perpetuate the problem.

    Reply
    • CovKid

      November 6th, 2018

      The term “herding cats” comes to mind. I’m sure every MLA from every party has a determined opinion on most issues but, if they want to achieve an agenda, then they must muzzle their own priorities for the greater good.

      Imagine what government would look like if every member of the legislature was allowed to flog their flavour of the month interminably!

      Reply
    • Farmer Dave

      November 6th, 2018

      Geoffrey Pounder, you are right that other parties muzzle their backbenchers. An MLA that I knew very well in the Peter Lougheed government told me that MLA’s, representing government, couldn’t send a letter to constituents or anyone else until Peter reviewed the letter and gave the approval to proceed. The fact is if any employee, for a company, did the same as Ms. Luff they would be fired. At least Ms. Luff can retain her job and represent her constituents as an independent MLA if she wants. For all Parties MLA’s need to follow the party line otherwise their Leader will be doing nothing but dealing with issues instead of Leading or Governing.

      Reply
      • Geoffrey Pounder

        November 7th, 2018

        It’s a matter of degree. Not black and white. MLAs need to operate with a certain degree of freedom and autonomy in order to represent their constituents. Yes, on key bills, the vote may be whipped. But otherwise MLAs should be free to speak their minds, raise issues, and even ask questions of their own ministers.

        One expects the Wildrose/UCP to muzzle their members for fear of bozo eruptions. No such fear on the other side of the house. Ms. Luff sounds perfectly sane and reasonable to me.
        For all decisions and utterances to run through the Premier’s Office implies a total concentration of power. Dictatorship, not democracy.
        What is Notley so afraid of? It’s not as if the NDP have a chance at a second term anyway.

        If you support stronger democratic institutions, support Ms. Luff. Concentration of power erodes democracy. If you should ever wonder where our democracy went, look in the mirror.

        Reply
        • Farmer Dave

          November 7th, 2018

          Ms. Luff admitted she wants to change the way government operates which is okay with me. Governing Government Parties (including Opposition Parties) have many meetings within their own organization for Party directives and to send a positive communication to the public. I wonder if Ms. Luff ever brought her concerns up before, in their meetings, before trying to proceed with them in question period. Also during a parties General Annual Meeting did Ms. Luff ever bring her concerns forward. If she didn’t and brought her concerns up in question period, without her Leader knowing, that would be totally inappropriate. There are ways to bring up policy questions/changes within any organization and it is not stabbing your Leader in the back during such times as question period. It appears to me that Ms. Luff does not want to take direction from her Leader or Party (Team) and wants to be her own Leader of the NDP.

          Reply
    • Rocky

      November 7th, 2018

      It’s often said, as Geoffrey Pounder does here, that independence by MLAs or MPs is how our system of government is supposed to work. This is sort of true, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. If parliamentarians had stuck with this notion, the parliamentary system would have had to be abandoned long ago. Voters would demand effective policy driven government one way or another, and our current modifications to the parliamentary system provide it in one of the most democratic ways possible. This is one of the problems with a party list, system, by the way. The way government is “supposed to work” would ensure legislative chaos, and eventually strong-man rule. The US constitution, remember, was designed to perpetuate race-based slavery forever. That is the way it’s “supposed to work.” After 1865, thankfully, our neighbours abandoned that idea, even though they kept their constitution.

      Reply
      • Geoffrey Pounder

        November 8th, 2018

        Absurd and overblown. No evidence that giving MLAs a modicum of freedom to speak and act on behalf of their constituents would result in chaos.
        Strong-man rule? What do you think the concentration of power in the Premier’s/Prime Minister’s Office leads to?
        Ms. Luff was completely muzzled. None of her endeavors would have led to legislative chaos.
        On key bills, the vote may be whipped. But otherwise MLAs should be free to speak their minds, raise issues in and outside their riding, and even ask questions of their own ministers. That spells democratic vigor and accountability, not chaos.

        Sad to see NDP partisans argue for centralization of power in the Premier’s/Prime Minister’s Office. They complain loudly when the other side does it. When their side does it, suddenly it’s just how things are done. Making a mockery of our democratic institutions.
        Sad to see partisanship and tribalism trump people’s democratic instincts.

        Reply
  2. Bob Raynard

    November 6th, 2018

    Why now?

    Reply
    • Sassy

      November 8th, 2018

      I’ve been wondering the same thing. If Luff wanted bargaining power, she should have done this protest at least a month ago. She could have threatened to resign if the leadership team didn’t make an honest attempt to address the bullying/toxic workplace, and the deficiencies in democratic practices. The government would have had to call a byelection within six months, something they would definitely not want to do just before the 2019 election. If Luff quit politics today, six months is mid-May.

      I think the government has really botched the bullying accusations. I’ve seen the same tactics employed in several workplaces and it’s ugly. The bullied have been hospitalized with nervous breakdowns. Good for Luff to get out while she still has her health.

      Reply
  3. Sam Gunsch

    November 6th, 2018

    This issue of party discipline, extreme party discipline actually in Canada’s parliaments, deserves debate and the democratic responsiveness of our governance system could be improved. It’s a legitimate issue. Not defending Luff’s particular method/choice at all.

    Just yesterday, for example, this report. https://www.hilltimes.com/2018/11/05/kids-short-pants-rule-says-new-samara-report/174639

    https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/06/06/alberta_mp_brent_rathgeber_blasts_conservatives_as_he_quits_party.html

    https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/empowering-backbench-mps-is-a-good-thing-for-canadians/article15760066/

    https://nationalpost.com/opinion/dale-smith-chongs-reform-act-is-actively-toxic-to-canadian-democracy

    http://seanholman.com/whipped/ EXCERPT: ‘exposes the secretive system of party discipline that transforms Canadian politicians into “trained seals.” ‘

    https://www.samaracanada.com/docs/default-source/trioro-dropbox/less-party-discipline-as-a-fix-for-parliament_lindell_global-news.pdf?sfvrsn=2

    Reply
  4. Athabascan

    November 6th, 2018

    Good riddance.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if she pops up as a UPC candidate in the next election.
    Nothing to see here folks – move along.

    Reply
    • CovKid

      November 6th, 2018

      That’s a bit cruel: she obviously thought that she could make a different impression after 44 years of monolithic (and Neanderthal) governance but was rudely confronted by the realities of modern-day politics.

      Reply
  5. Lars

    November 6th, 2018

    If you think that Jason Kenney won’t make a meal out of this incident because he privately agrees with Rachel Notley, you’re not taking sufficient account of his cynicism and hypocrisy.

    Reply
  6. Sassy

    November 6th, 2018

    This is a tough one. I would headline it – Idealistic Young Mom Feels Betrayed. “Mom” is important, I think, because many parents of young children feel especially responsible for creating an honest, fair, and kind home, work place, government, and society. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that former cabinet ministers Stephanie McLean and Brandy Payne are also new parents. All three Calgary NDP MLAs do not intend to run next year. Robyn Luff states she is not joining another Party. This is not an opportunist move on her part.

    The elected NDP leadership should have known that idealistic backbenchers (probably most of those elected) required some gentle handling. If I were part of the leadership team, I would take a good look at what is going on at the Premier’s Southern Alberta Office. Also Luff is right – Chiefs of Staff and other political staffers shouldn’t have absolute power over elected MLAs. Are the MLAs who are assigned to positions as government whips, house leaders, and caucus leaders power and control types or collaborators? It’s interesting that Notley chose Luff as Deputy Caucus Chair when the NDP first formed government in 2015. I’m not sure when that changed.

    Luff is committing political suicide to get her message out. It hurts the party she cares about, too, but people who feel betrayed sometimes do crazy things.

    Reply
  7. David

    November 7th, 2018

    I doubt Ms. Luff is the first backbencher to be disillusioned in the history of politics. I suppose it can be a shock for those that are naive or idealistic and arrive without an idea of how the system works. Some figure out a way to make a difference quietly or focus on certain issues that are important to them, some with strong skills and talents work to advance their career to a level where they can make more of a difference and some go away quietly after one term. It is an inherent part of the partisan system with political parties that there will be some level of message coordination or control. Parties that lose control of their MLA’s either do not get a chance to govern or lose it – mixed messages do not go over very well with voters, who want a clear idea of what the parties stand for.

    It was amusing to see the UCP criticize the NDP here for being overly controlling. Kenney was previously a part of the Federal Conservative government run by Harper, who was regularly described as being into total message control and Kenney seems to be trying to impose a similar system on his MLA’s and some unruly candidates. The grassroots guarantee is gone and not worth the paper it was printed on. The only one from the UCP who seems to remember it now is the former UCP MLA Fildebrandt. I suppose it is easy for him to allow all his MLA’s to speak freely as he leads a party with only one MLA. Certainly it gets harder to coordinate a group the larger it gets.

    I realize it might be frustrating for an MLA to feel they are not being taken seriously, but it would be best to try understand the reasons for it as unfortunately, people seldom seem to take an outspoken party of one very seriously either.

    Reply
  8. Jerrymacgp

    November 8th, 2018

    In our system, discussion & debate between members of a party goes on behind closed doors, in caucus. Once caucus has discussed a matter, all are expected to toe the line supported by the majority of caucus, or resign from caucus. Remember, in the Westminster parliamentary system, the government serves only as long as it retains the confidence of the House; caucus infighting happening in public would probably cause even a solid majority government to fall, for want of confidence. This isn’t Italy, you know …

    Reply
    • Geoffrey Pounder

      November 8th, 2018

      I guess you’ve never heard of “free votes”. Not every utterance in the Legislature is a vote on bills. And not every bill is a confidence bill.
      What’s wrong with an MLA bringing up constituents’ issues in Question Period? What’s wrong with an MLA making member’s statements? What’s wrong with private member’s bills?
      Are Albertans really so afraid of democracy?

      Reply

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