Calgary-East MLA Robyn Luff and Premier Rachel Notley at a roundtable on education affordability in 2017 (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

MLA Robyn Luff removed from NDP Caucus after speaking out “about culture of fear and intimidation”

Photo: Calgary-East MLA Robyn Luff and Premier Rachel Notley at a roundtable on education affordability in 2017 (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

Calgary-East MLA Robyn Luff has been removed from the New Democratic Party Caucus after releasing a public letter announcing she would not sit in the Legislative Assembly “in protest of a culture of fear and intimidation that leads to MLA’s being unable to properly represent their constituents in the legislature.”

Writing that she “felt bullied by the NDP leadership for over 3 and a half years” and faced “a culture of fear and intimidation,” Luff’s letter details the grievances she feels as a backbencher in the government caucus, which include whipped votes and reading scripted questions and private members statements in the Assembly.

Luff wrote in the letter that she would not return to the Assembly “until a resolution has been presented.” It is now likely that when she does return it will be as an Independent MLA.

Robyn Luff MLA Calgary East NDP Press Release

MLA Robyn Luff’s letter on November 5, 2018

Luff is correct that many of the prepared statements and questions that backbenchers are frequently required to read in the Assembly are scripted, and sometimes comically so. Many provinces do not provide time for government backbench MLAs to ask questions in Question Period, and anyone who has watched an episode of QP will likely see why. Known colloquially as “puffballs,” the scripted questions asked by backbench MLAs are rarely challenging and exist to provide cabinet ministers with an opportunity to read government talking points into Hansard.

“People are permitted to speak their minds, and they have an opportunity to do that,” said Government House leader Brian Mason in response to Luff’s letter. “Everybody in a caucus, especially large caucuses, is frustrated from time to time.”

A statement released by the NDP Caucus late on November 5, 2018, stated that “NDP MLAs have lost confidence in her ability to participate as a productive and trustworthy member of the government caucus.”

Despite her family roots in the Alberta NDP (her grandfather Alan Bush was an Anglican minister who stood in the federal NDP in northern Alberta in the 1965 and 1967 federal elections and ran against Grant Notley for the leadership of the NDP in 1968) a breach of caucus solidarity this large was not going be treated lightly.

There is no doubt Premier Rachel Notley runs a tight ship and because of it the NDP have imposed an impressive level of caucus discipline since forming government in 2015. Since their election victory, the NDP have largely avoided the types of bozo-eruptions and embarrassing scandals that have sometimes become weekly occurrences in the Wildrose-turned-United Conservative Party Caucus.

Caucus discipline is nothing new. It is a characteristic of most functional parliamentary democracies. But the level of control exerted on individual MLAs by party leaders and their staffers is something that could feel incredibly stifling for some backbench MLAs, especially those who might feel more naturally inclined to sit in the opposition benches.

Backbenchers who do not feel they are being valued or given an opportunity to speak up and advocate for the issues they or their constituents feel are important can create resentment towards the political leadership. Providing some sort of relief valve to deal with backbencher frustration is important.

In the mid-1990s, rookie backbench Progressive Conservative MLAs Jon Havelock, Mark Hlady, Lyle Oberg, Murray Smith, Ed Stelmach, and Lorne Taylor formed “the Deep Six” by attempting to drive an agenda of cuts to spending and government services, or at least that is the political narrative that was created.

The short-lived sequel to the Deep Six, the Fiscal Four, was formed by Doug Griffiths, Jonathan Denis, Rob Anderson, and Kyle Fawcett after the 2008 election. The group of PC backbenchers soon expanded to include three or four other MLAs, but it did not last long after Anderson crossed the floor to the Wildrose Party in 2010 (and the “Fiscal Seven” did not have the same ring to it).

Aside from being allowed to play minor theatrical roles as the internal opposition to government, most backbench MLAs were largely compliant during the PC Party’s 43-year reign. The caucus and party revolt that ended Alison Redford’s political career in 2014 was a notable exception, but the most significant actual rebellion by backbench MLAs in Alberta’s history was the Social Credit backbenchers revolt of 1937, which nearly toppled Premier William Aberhart’s nascent government.

It is not uncommon for disgruntled MLAs to leave their caucus to sit as Independent MLAs or join other parties, like Sandra Jansen did in 2016 and Rick Fraser and Karen McPherson did in 2017, but Luff’s decision to refuse to take her seat in the Assembly is not a tenable long-term strategy.

Without knowing more, it is not clear that anything Luff wrote she has experienced is new or unique to the NDP Caucus in Alberta, or if she is alone in feeling this way. It is also unclear what Luff’s political future outside the NDP Caucus will hold over the next five months until the 2019 election is called.

Whether publishing that letter was politically smart or political suicide, it took courage for Luff to speak up. And speaking truth to power is something that we should encourage our elected officials to do more regularly.

12 thoughts on “MLA Robyn Luff removed from NDP Caucus after speaking out “about culture of fear and intimidation”

  1. Sam Gunsch

    You will probably recall that Michael Chong proposed a bill – The Reform Act – during Harper’s admin. that would likely have prevented this situation… an explanation here: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/empowering-backbench-mps-is-a-good-thing-for-canadians/article15760066/

    EXCERPT: Mr. Chong’s bill would restore power to MPs and make them more accountable to their constituents at the same time. In a country known to have the strictest party discipline in the world, the bill would mean that Canadian party leaders would no longer be able to use their MPs as a legislative shield for their own bidding. At the same time, the expectations we hold for our own Members of Parliament – to influence decisions of caucus, and break ranks when their gut tells them to do so – could increase.

    Reply
  2. Sam Gunsch

    More from that column relevant to Luff’s situation (below). Column by: Mark Coffin is the President and Founder of the Springtide Collective, a public interest group working to improve the state of democracy in Nova Scotia. He tweets, blogs and speaks on issues related to democratic renewal and citizen engagement.

    https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/empowering-backbench-mps-is-a-good-thing-for-canadians/article15760066/

    EXCERPT: Before Parliament can become a deliberative space again, party caucuses must be guided by rules that create the conditions under which MPs feel deliberation is possible without demotion, and where leaders have a reason to listen to them. Mr. Chong’s bill would do exactly that.

    And, since the most basic level of formal engagement with Canadian politics is to elect a Member of Parliament, empowering that member to be more effective is one of the most necessary moves to restore faith in the democratic process and entice citizens to get involved in every level of it.

    In supporting this bill, Parliament would be opening the door for more meaningful debates on issues that aren’t as black and white as party talking points suggest. It would also make it safe to have more open discussions on fixing parliamentary democracy. This fixes in this bill won’t be the only ones necessary to fix parliament, but it makes sense to put them first.

    Mark Coffin is the President and Founder of the Springtide Collective, a public interest group working to improve the state of democracy in Nova Scotia. He tweets, blogs and speaks on issues related to democratic renewal and citizen engagement.

    Reply
  3. David Harrigan

    After 3 years as an MLA, she figured out that MLAs are whipped? Sorry, but I figured that out as a pre-teenager when I noticed that each party had a position called “Whip.”
    Party discipline in Canada is much greater than in the UK, but even here, caucus members and backbenchers can fight back against leaders’ offices. It was caucus that got rid of Alison Redford and Patrick Brown, both of whom were elected leader by the party, not the caucus. Both of these were good political moves.
    But The Westminster model only works best when caucus selects leader. The gradual evolution to having all party members vote on leader appeared more democratic, but has had the opposite effect. Party discipline is necessary to ensure that work gets done, governance happens, and laws get passed. But party disciple without a leader needing to worry about support of caucus leads to the problems Ms. Luff is concerned about.
    Her concern is not with the NDP, but with the overall state of Canadian political parties. Mr. Chong had the right approach: try to change the system.

    But to claim that the issue is one party bullying it’s MLAs does not take courage. It takes naivety unbecoming of an elected official.

    Reply
    1. Valerie Keefe

      Mr. Harrigan, you will forgive me… but as a feminist, political economist, and a queer trans woman, experience leads me to believe the removal of Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown, in public acquiescence to a highly problematic movement to undermine the presumption of innocence, which is dressing itself up as an advocacy group for ignored survivors, was not a positive event. I don’t think the 4,000 Ontarians who ultimately became less housing-secure as a result would call it a positive event. Why do you?

      Also it’s worth noting that the Freedom Conservative party is eschewing the position of whip for precisely this reason: The office of Whip has ceased to be an institution primarily concerned with vote-counting and instead has moved onto a rote position of strong-arming.

      That said, you make a good point about the reduction in responsibility of leadership to caucus… one would think a reduction in responsibilities would lead to a commensurate reduction in rights.

      Reply
  4. Don Slater

    I am just a little pawn in the game of life. I have spoken with members of the NDP and have found them to be very interested and moved by my words. Perhaps the MLA should have considered that the reason she was not being heard, is that she had nothing compelling to say.

    Moral thinking needs to be tempered with logic. You have to consider the damage your actions may cause to those who are also working to serve the public trust.

    How can you speak for your constituents in government, when you do not have the fortitude and endurance to even speak for yourself?

    Reply
  5. Bob

    The existence of the deep six years ago shows that we have a bloated government and are in need of deep cuts to restore our prosperity. We need these deep cuts and we need them now.

    Reply
    1. Dwayne

      Bob: Cuts are not the answer. Alberta has to play catchup from the cuts that begain with Don Getty and Ralph Klein. They wasted money on the most costliest scandals, got bad oil royalty rates, and Ralph Klein put in a flat tax failure. Hence, the strong cuts. Not good.

      Reply
  6. David

    I suppose Ms. Luff can’t easily compare her party’s discipline and control to other parties. However, perhaps she could have talked to Sandra Jansen about Kenney, the apparently eager disciple of Harper’s total message control strategy. I doubt the grass is greener anywhere else, either for the grassroots or for MLA’s.

    I am sure the life of a backbencher is not always an easy one, but the nature of politics is parties have to deliver a clear message to voters and not let inexperienced MLA’s go around saying whatever they want. I suppose there is the Freedom Conservative party, which currently lets all their MLA’s say what they want, but of course the leader is the only MLA right now, so I suspect that approach might change somewhat if there were more.

    Unfortunately for Ms. Luff, outspoken independent MLA’s are also generally ignored by almost everyone too.

    Reply
    1. Valerie Keefe

      David:

      Why is it that the 19th century was able to accommodate politics that had complex messaging and interplay of several issues across shifting coalitions of elected representatives but in the 21st century you believe it’s a sin to treat the electorate as though they’re smart enough to recognize the presence and value of an intraparty debate? Do you think we have to conduct our politics this way?

      Reply
      1. David

        Its my observation that people want clear, consistent messaging now. Lots of things were different in the 19th century, the pool of voters was smaller, limited to landowning, white men in many cases, debates were on a more personal and local level and when in the media played out over a longer time with more nuance in newspapers. Our current technology and media seems to prefer a quick response and then move on to something else. Whether the change is better or worse, I think how politics is conducted is really a reflection on society and where it is at.

        Reply

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