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Disillusioned Calgary MLA vows not to sit in legislature, is ejected from NDP caucus

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

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.

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 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.

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 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 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," 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 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 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.

This may not be the best of all worlds, but without significant electoral reform -- always unlikely -- it is the one we inhabit. This includes 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.

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.

Notley has always understood this. Since winning a majority government in 2015, she has been remarkably effective in 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 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, 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.

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 to 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 fundraising 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.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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