As what has come to be known as the Essaygate Scandal unfolded, no one in Alberta seems to have thought to demand the resignation of Ron Orr, minister of culture and status of women in the United Conservative Party Government.
Mr. Orr is the minister responsible for status of women issues, who by tradition and Parliamentary convention should resign if there is incompetence or impropriety within the department for which he has been given responsibility.
No one can deny the awarding of a prize in the Her Vision Inspires essay contest for young women to someone who included racist and anti-immigration themes while arguing that in the 21st Century women are better suited to bearing babies than challenging men for political office amounts to evidence of serious mismanagement of Mr. Orr’s portfolio.
As things stand, we know little more about how this happened than we did when the controversial essay was posted on the Legislature’s website a week ago, then quickly yanked down.
Associate Status of Women Minister Jackie Armstrong-Homeniuk has said only five submissions were received for the contest, which was announced on the government’s website in February.
She admitted the “panel of female members of the Legislative Assembly” that was supposed to judge the essays of no more than 500 words by women aged between 17 and 25 on how they would “strengthen … community and bring about change with a career in politics” was made up of only herself and her Parliamentary Secretary, Camrose MLA Jackie Lovely.
Unverified statements have been posted online saying more than five essays were submitted to the contest – although there have been no explanations offered about what might have become of them.
There has been no comment from the government on why they were rejected and an offensive essay accepted, although one supposes the reasoning is obvious.
We can infer from the way the brouhaha has unfolded that the contest, while inspired by the Canadian chapter of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians, was a vanity project managed by The Two Jackies without assistance of the professional civil service, which certainly would have done a better job of publicizing the contest and vetting entries.
The NDP Opposition chose to demand the resignations of Ms. Armstrong-Homeniuk and Ms. Lovely.
“They have both displayed a horrendous lack of good judgment and an inability to take seriously the work required to advance and protect the interests of women in this province,” said NDP Children’s Services Critic Rakhi Pancholi, MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud.
Noting the lack of explanation about why the offensive third-prize essay was chosen, Ms. Pancholi said Thursday that the judges “were either too lazy and distracted to read a 500-word essay themselves or they read the essay and chose it because they endorsed the views it contained.
“In either situation, these two MLAs are not fit to be anywhere near the Status of Women Ministry,” she stated. “They must step down immediately.”
Well it’s hard to argue with that – although both Premier Jason Kenney and Parks Minister Whitney Issik tried.
Mr. Kenney claimed yesterday on his free Corus Radio soapbox that the controversy about “an essay contest no one’s ever heard of” only erupted because “it’s not a big news week.”
Ms. Issik, a former associate status of women minister, implied the problem had been created by the office of Speaker Nathan Cooper and chided reporters for asking about it on the grounds that both contest judges had already apologized for awarding the prize. (Notwithstanding a Postmedia headline to the contrary, the prize seems nevertheless not to have been withdrawn.)
This tells us that the government views neither the contest nor the prize as a very serious matter.
Which brings us back to Mr. Orr, MLA for Lacombe-Ponoka and the former pastor of the Clive Baptist Church.
He was unexpectedly promoted to the portfolio in July 2021 – after Mr. Kenney fired Chestermere-Strathmore MLA Leela Aheer as minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women for criticizing his boozy mid-pandemic Sky Palace patio party. Ms. Aheer is now a candidate to lead the UCP.
It’s quite unclear why the minister of culture and status of women requires two layers of political bureaucracy between him and his ministry’s top civil servant, Deputy Minister Heather Caltagirone.
We do not know why the Civil Service was not involved in this work, which it clearly should have been.
Given the low importance assigned by the UCP to culture and women’s issues, it’s hard to believe Ms. Armstrong-Homeniuk’s and Ms. Lovely’s appointments were anything more that rewards for Kenney loyalists in the UCP Caucus.
Albertans might think the optics of a man holding the status of women portfolio are not good, and they would be right. But the minister alone, whomever he or she may be, should surely be up to the task without requiring the assistance of an associate minister with a Parliamentary assistant!
Be that as it may, according to Parliamentary tradition and doctrine, the minister of a department is accountable to the House for the conduct of everyone in his department. By convention he must investigate every allegation of incompetence or impropriety in his department and take appropriate measures.
If the incompetence or impropriety is significant, Westminster Parliamentary doctrine requires the minister’s resignation.
Now, as has been said here before, this Parliamentary convention is honoured nowadays mostly in the breach.
Nevertheless, we have not heard so much as a peep from Mr. Orr about the significant incompetence and impropriety in his ministry.
At the very least, he must speak up and tell us what’s going on and what he proposes to do about it.
Tradition, though, requires that he resign.