Chris Pecora

Unwatchable Politics

Incivility in the legislature.

By Graham Thomson

Once upon a time, politics in Alberta was such a relatively tame affair that the leader of the Opposition was kicked out of the legislative assembly for calling a cabinet minister a “mouse.” That was in 1991, when Liberal leader Laurence Decore used “unparliamentary” language to describe then-environment minister Ralph Klein.

The exchange created a stir at the time but seems oh so quaint now. These days decorum in the legislative assembly has sunk to the point that question period has become little more than a partisan bunfight.

During one exchange in the summer sitting, Opposition leader Rachel Notley declared “Albertans cannot trust this government to tell the truth,” to which Premier Kenney accused the NDP of spreading “medi-scare” hysteria, to which Notley accused Kenney of introducing “American-style, second-mortgage medicine,” to which Kenney replied the NDP “must be tight up for money when they come up with rubbish like that for their fundraising emails to some of their gullible supporters.”

Question period in Alberta has never been courteous, exactly, but over the past decade any veneer of civility has been stripped away. In January 2011, after the rise of the Wildrose Party sparked ever-increasing hostility in the legis-
lature, Ed Stelmach announced his retirement just three years into his first term as premier. Stelmach, never much of a political scrapper, had grown tired of the personal attacks from Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, and he feared the next provincial election would focus on US-inspired, personality-driven politics.

Question period in Alberta has become a slugfest of insults and partisan attacks. It is also all too often repetitious and exhausting.

That’s indeed what we got, as Smith squared off against the next PC leader, Alison Redford, in a bitterly contested 2012 election that sparked a new level of hostility in the legislature.

Things cooled down in 2014 when Jim Prentice became the new premier—but only because he was in secret negotiations with Smith to bury the hatchet and have the majority of the Wildrose caucus cross the floor to the PCs. That Machiavellian manoeuvre helped seal the fate of the 44-year-old PC dynasty and opened the way for Alberta’s first NDP government, which in turn prompted federal MP Jason Kenney to enter provincial politics to create the United Conservative Party.

That’s when the veneer of civility, by then parchment-thin, was finally stripped clean. Kenney launched relentless attacks against Premier Notley and the NDP government, simplistically and unfairly blaming them for Alberta’s low-oil-price-driven recession. The NDP responded by criticizing Kenney in the legislative assembly even before he’d won a seat in a by-election.

The 2019 election became not just a war of competing ideologies but a clash of personalities between Kenney and Notley. That friction has only grown more intense, to the point where it’s a wonder some days the legislature doesn’t spontaneously burst into flames.

Ironically, Kenney vowed to bring back civility and decorum to the legislature. He banned desk thumping and ordered his caucus members to stop heckling the opposition. But he also began to demolish the NDP government’s legacy. Among other things, he has scrapped the carbon tax, eliminated Notley’s climate change plan, slashed corporate taxes, undermined unions, reduced environmental oversight, promoted more private delivery of healthcare, fired the province’s election commissioner and appointed UCP supporters to boards and committees. All of this before the pandemic hit.

Since then, Notley has raised the heat on the UCP, saying she’ll tone things down when Kenney stops misleading Albertans and hurting working Albertans. She calls the UCP “the most corrupt, hypocritical government in the history of Canada.”

Kenney’s office puts the blame for rising acrimony squarely on Notley: “It is unfortunate to see the official opposition consistently lower the bar by heckling and shouting during assembly proceedings.” But while it’s true that Kenney doesn’t heckle, he does taunt. He regularly needles Notley as being “angry with Albertans for having fired her in the last election.”

Question period has become a slugfest of insults and partisan attacks. It is also all too often repetitious and exhausting.

Are Albertans paying attention? Or are they turned off by the acrimony, distracted by the pandemic or overwhelmed by the pace of governmental change?

Opposition parties fighting reform-minded governments want voters to pay attention. Governments bent on controversial change want to avoid scrutiny. The NDP is setting its hair on fire almost daily to call attention to what Kenney is doing, but the danger for Notley is that average Albertans are growing tired of the polarized rhetoric and have tuned out.

That’s the irony. At a time when Albertans should be especially wary of what their provincial government is up to, they might simply be too cynical, confused and exhausted to care.

Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.

 

 

 

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