You may have missed this promise from Jason Kenney in the lead-up to April’s election: “I and our caucus will raise the bar of civility and decorum in the legislature.” It probably didn’t grab your attention like his promise to scrap the carbon tax or reduce taxes. And what the heck does “legislative decorum” even look like?
For Kenney it meant a restrained and less chaotic legislative assembly, most notably a ban on the long-standing practice of MLAs loudly thumping their desks whenever aroused. After the election, the UCP government dutifully passed a motion to stop desk thumping. But they couldn’t muzzle the NDP. Deprived of banging on furniture, Opposition MLAs took to applauding. They gleefully continued to cheer their own speakers and jeer the government. Decorum be damned.
Kenney was clearly irritated by the NDP’s antics but could at least claim the moral high ground. Then came the Night of the Earplugs. According to NDP MLAs, at about 11:30 p.m. on May 19, during another marathon legislative session, a smiling Kenney strolled down the aisles of the government benches, handing out earplugs to his UCP caucus members.
There is no video of Kenney in flagrante delicto. But there is video of NDP MLA David Eggen, who was in mid-debate at the time. “I can see that many of them are wearing bright pink earplugs that their premier is handing out to all of them right now,” said Eggen, who presented a play-by-play. “Probably many of them can’t even hear what I’m saying right now. I’ll test it with the House leader [Jason Nixon]. Oh, he’s coming. Testing: one, two, three. Oh, he took them out. That’s great.”
Eggen’s bemusement quickly turned to outrage. The NDP said half a dozen UCP members had stuck the neon coloured plugs into their ears as an “arrogant” and unparliamentary gesture to the official Opposition.
The next day, Kenney’s office tried to pass the moment off as a “harmless and light-hearted attempt to boost government caucus morale.” But that left Kenney open to criticism that he’d hit the down button on civility and decorum. So he changed his message. During an interview on CBC TV, Kenney insisted he’d simply given a pair of earplugs to a UCP member who had tinnitus and needed help to “reduce the volume” of debate.
The NDP accused Kenney of lying; other critics said he was “gaslighting” Albertans by insisting that what had happened—and had been apparently confirmed by the UCP’s initial “light-hearted” explanation—had in fact not happened.
UCP supporters dismissed the kerfuffle as much ado about nothing. But it is something. It is an indication that legislative decorum is an elusive beast if not an outright myth. Even Kenney, that paragon of legislative discipline, struggles with it.
Going back to the Getty days, politicians have talked about restoring decorum to Alberta’s legislature, as if it was ever there. It wasn’t. In the 1990s, Speaker David Carter kicked out so many MLAs during testy debates that he should have replaced the desks with ejection seats. (Liberal leader Laurence Decore was once ejected for calling Ralph Klein a “mouse.”)
In 2002 the PCs under Klein shouted down questions from the tiny Liberal and NDP opposition caucuses to the point that the Liberals stormed out of the assembly in protest. In 2012 the Wildrose caucus walked out in protest against Speaker Gene Zwozdesky and then-premier Alison Redford.
Decorum has arguably skipped the legislature altogether ever since the appearance of Kenney on the provincial stage—not because of Kenney himself but because of the NDP’s almost visceral reaction to the man. They really don’t like him, seeing him as a threat to everything New Democrats hold dear, including workers’ rights and environmental protection. After Kenney took his seat as an MLA in March of 2018, the NDP would routinely attack him during question period, even though he was opposition leader and not premier.
Now that Kenney is premier the NDP goes after him hammer and tongs. Rachel Notley admits that things “get a little robust” but blames Kenney for “not adhering to facts—which others might refer to as ‘the truth.’ ” Notley says if Kenney and the UCP would stick to the truth, the NDP would turn down the volume.
The bottom line: Parliamentary debate, like parliamentary democracy, is a messy and chaotic affair. Injecting decorum sounds like a good idea, like lowering control rods into an overheating nuclear reactor. But it’s not good if it stifles debate. It’s dangerous if it undermines democracy.
In Kenney’s case the call for civility smacks of hubris. The NDP may have lost Alberta’s election but the party won 619,000 votes and 24 seats. As official Opposition it has a mandate to hold the government to account, and Notley won’t allow Kenney to dictate how she does that. Kenney may have the legislative power to fulfill many of his election promises, but unilaterally imposing “decorum” in the legislature is not one of them.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.