When MLA Robyn Luff declared last November that she would boycott the Legislature because of a “culture of fear and intimidation” emanating from the premier’s office, she expected immediate changes. She certainly fostered change—by being unceremoniously kicked out of the NDP caucus.
Luff, an unknown backbencher, was challenging the most powerful politician in Alberta, the premier. Luff had issued several written statements listing her complaints. Among them: her private member’s statements had to be vetted by party officials; she had to parrot government announcements on social media; and her private member’s bill got sidetracked.
Her grievances seemed based more on chafing at the handcuffs of party discipline than examples of outright bullying. But there was a kernel of truth to her complaint that would no doubt elicit sympathy from backbenchers past and present, provincial and federal. Take, for example, Brent Rathgeber, a former backbench MP in the Harper government. In 2013 Rathgeber quit the federal Conservatives because of stifling party discipline that he said had strangled his ability to represent his constituents in Edmonton-St. Albert. After his one-man revolt, he was named by Maclean’s the “MP who best represents his constituents.”
In 2014 his frustration led him to write a book, Irresponsible Government. Even though Rathgeber lost the 2015 election running as an Independent, he emerged with a strong reputation and is now ethics adviser to Edmonton city council.
Luff, on the other hand, undermined her position. A big difference was in execution. Rathgeber held a news conference to clearly explain his frustrations, which focused on his job as a representative of his constituents. And he kept going to work in the House of Commons. Luff issued a couple of written statements, initially didn’t return media calls, proposed major changes to our system of government (e.g., having an independent panel, not the premier, appoint cabinet ministers) and wanted the premier to resign should anybody else complain of bullying. Not only that, Luff refused to return to the Legislature until the government agreed to her changes.
Rathgeber disagreed with Luff’s decision to boycott the Legislature, but says he understands her frustration. He says backbenchers—politicians not in cabinet—have seen their power and influence gradually eroded in Canada. “We’ve taken party discipline to a dangerous level,” he says. “Parties have too much control over their backbenchers.” Government MPs in Britain can disagree with the prime minister on issues without creating a crisis that topples the government. “Margaret Thatcher lost 14 votes in the House of Commons,” says Rathgeber.
Similarly, in January, Prime Minister Theresa May lost a major vote on Brexit in large part because of rebellious backbenchers in her own party who still claimed to be dutiful party members. They could be both outspoken and loyal.
There was a time in Alberta politics when backbenchers could speak up without fear of exile. In 1994 a half dozen new PC MLAs dubbed themselves the “Deep Six” and argued for individual freedom, responsibility and keeping then-Premier Ralph Klein on a narrow fiscal path. Klein paid them keen attention and eventually elevated five of them to cabinet, with one, Ed Stelmach, going on to become premier himself.
The NDP insists its rank and file MLAs are not the political equivalent of galley slaves, all rowing to the drumbeat of the premier. But can you name anything a backbencher has done recently? The government will point you to Thomas Dang, MLA for Edmonton-South West, who introduced a private member’s bill to scrap Daylight Saving Time. It failed. Then there’s Deborah Drever, MLA for Calgary-Bow. While expelled from the NDP caucus in 2015 for controversial social media posts, she introduced a private member’s bill to allow victims of domestic violence to break their rental agreements and move out without penalty. The bill, lauded by all parties, passed.
But most backbenchers are invisible, rising into the public consciousness briefly in question period as they lob puffballs to ministers. It has long been thus—but the situation has become more acute under Notley, who has exercised a remarkable degree of control over her caucus. That’s perhaps not surprising. Of the 54 members elected under the NDP banner in 2015, 50 were new to provincial politics. They’re still learning.
It’s not as if Jason Kenney gives free rein to his MLAs, either. In 2018 he ordered his entire UCP caucus to leave the assembly 14 times to avoid any of them casting a vote on a bill to expand protest-free zones around abortion clinics. Kenney has publicly extolled the virtue of strong party discipline. He’s not someone who would seem to welcome a Deep Six in his own backbench.
Both Kenney and Notley face challenges ahead—but they’ve done their best to make sure mutiny, or even public grumbling from the backbench, is not one of them.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.