“Unfortunately, our politicians are not only contaminating the minds of the public but poisoning our democracy at the same time.” Gary Mason, Globe & Mail columnist commenting on the two Conservative MPs who accused Prime Minister Trudeau of running a jackboot dictatorship.
A quick check of Hansard this week demonstrates that Gary Mason’s words are equally applicable to Alberta.
Over the last three years we’ve become numb to Kenney’s disrespect for the business of government–one of his first acts upon becoming premier was to distribute earplugs to his MLAs to spare the poor dears the hardship of listening to the NDP debate a government bill–but last week the government’s lack of civility and decorum boiled over into something more worrisome.
Into the gutter
The week started with Rachel Notley asking Kenney a question about the ongoing RCMP investigation into allegations of fraud in the 2017 UCP leadership race: Why didn’t the premier and his ministers who are under investigation step aside in accordance with “long-standing parliamentary tradition” to avoid the real or perceived opportunity to interfere with the judicial system?*
Kenney could have responded by saying (1) her question was irrelevant because he and his ministers were not under investigation or (2) she was mistaken in her understanding of long-standing parliamentary tradition (assuming she was, which I doubt).
Instead he launched into a tirade about NDP “fear and smear” tactics, the “politics of personal destruction” and the use of “defamatory attack(s).” He concluded by asking “Why doesn’t [Notley] understand that every time she goes into the gutter, all she does is lower the tone of Alberta politics?”
The hypocrisy of that statement defies belief, but sure, let’s talk about the tone of Alberta politics.
The tone of Alberta politics
We’ll start with the exchange between Jason Nixon, Kenney’s environment minister (and government house leader), and Todd Loewen, a former UCP MLA who was booted out of caucus for disagreeing with the premier.
Earlier in the week Loewen criticized Kenney’s leadership. He said polls showed most Albertans want Kenney to resign. He said Kenney calling his opponents “bugs” and “lunatics” was disgraceful and closed by saying Kenney had failed to deliver on platform promises like the citizen’s initiative bill, recall legislation and the fair deal agenda.**
Nixon sprang to Kenney’s defence saying the “lunatics” comment was aimed at racists and people who do hateful things. He attacked Loewen’s character saying he was engaging in junior high politics and supported the Brian Jean-NDP alliance (?).
A couple of days later, Loewen tabled several newspaper articles, videos and pages from Hansard to support his argument and rebut what he called “outright misinformation” on Nixon’s part.
Nixon exploded, saying “Mr. Speaker, the guy just called me a fucking liar in the middle of the damn Legislature.” A few minutes later he said, “What a joke. That’s why your career is over, Todd.***
The Speaker rebuked Nixon for using unparliamentary and wildly inappropriate language and for using Loewen’s name, not his proper title. He also scolded Loewen for using the word “misled” and made both MLAs apologize.
Why we need to pay attention
We could dismiss this brouhaha as the UCP having a meltdown, but we shouldn’t.
Why? Because Nixon also said something extremely disturbing to anyone who values democracy. He alleged Loewen had misused the tablings process and threatened to “bring a standing order package back here right after the break to make sure [Loewen] can’t use tablings like that no more.”
This is critically important because Standing Orders are permanent written rules under which the House regulates its proceedings. If the Speaker thought Loewen had misused the tablings process he would have said so, but he didn’t.
That the Government House Leader would threaten to turn the tabling process on its head to silence an MLA critical of Jason Kenney and himself is undemocratic.
What Albertans saw last week in the House is not normal parliamentary behavior. It’s the last gasp of a party struggling for survival and a leader who’s prepared to let his acolytes burn the place down to stay in power.
The historian Timothy Snyder said it’s a mistake to assume that those who came to power through democratic institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions. Snyder also said it’s up to the people to protect democratic institutions because they can’t protect themselves.
Those are our marching orders.
We need to call out the Kenney government’s undemocratic behavior and work as hard as we can to replace the UCP with the NDP in the next election.
It’s the least we can do to protect democracy in Alberta.
*Hansard, Mar 29, 2022, p 475
**Hansard, Mar 28, 2022, p 427
***Hansard, Mar 31, p 593