The Alberta Legislature grows increasingly adversarial
EDMONTON – It’s been a heated week in the Alberta Legislature, complete with fiery Question Periods, bombshell accusations of potential conflict of interest cases, and even a call for Premier Alison to temporarily resign.
The tone of political discourse in our province has been a frequent topic of discussion lately, both in and out of the Legislature.
“The way things are going, I don’t think this is going to end,” reveals MacEwan University Political Scientist Chaldeans Mensah.
“The Opposition is smelling blood – political blood – and they will really try to make sure that this sticks to the government.”
So, what’s behind the more aggressive nature that seems to be dominating provincial politics?
“We have a very tenacious Opposition right now,” explains Mensah.
“The opposition parties are very energized,” he adds. “I think what we’re seeing is that the tone and the spirit in the Legislature has changed dramatically. We have excessive partisanship, and the Premier is caught in the middle.”
The Wildrose Official Opposition has 17 seats, and won 34.3 per cent of the popular vote in the April election. Many political scientists say it’s the strength of the Opposition that’s fueling the fiery session.
“The opposition are simply doing their job,” says Mensah. “They’re just looking for loopholes, opportunities to score points.”
When it comes to the rough-and-tumble tone in the house, opposition parties say they’ll roll with the punches.
“We work within the system that we’re given,” NDP leader Brian Mason told Global News Friday.
“It’s messy and people may not like it at times, but it gets to the bottom of things more effectively more than other systems of government.”
“For Alberta, it’s been a fairly stayed political scene, because of the long-time dominance of one party,” he adds. “Albertans may not be used to this kind of thing… our system is an adversarial system. It’s not a system where all the parties get together and deliberate… but our system is designed to be adversarial. Even the way you sit in the chamber opposite each other, the QP, and the fact the government will fall if one of their major pieces of legislation is defeated. It’s a very adversarial system.”
In 1993, the Liberal Party won a total of 32 seats and 39 per cent of the popular vote, displacing the NDP to become the Official Opposition. The party held on to that status until the Wildrose Party took it from them in 2012.
Mensah says the Wildrose is still in election campaign mode, and the party’s aggressive approach is starting to get under the Premier’s skin.
“She’s really trying to meet fire with fire, and that is not a very good recipe for moving the province along.”
On Wednesday, Redford confronted allegations that – as Justice Minister – she was behind a decision to select the International Tobacco Recovery Laywers (TRL) as the firm to represent the province in a $10 billion lawsuit against Big Tobacco. TRL includes Redford’s ex-husband Robert Hawkes’ firm.
The Premier denies a conflict of interest, saying in house Wednesday, “I was not the justice minister at the time that the government made that decision.”
Documents obtained by a Freedom of Information Request (FOIP) indicate Redford did sign off on the firm selection. Other documents show letters were sent to the TRL confirming it was the successful firm, and other letters were sent to the firms not chosen advising them of the decision.
During Question Period Wednesday, when Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson brought up filing a complaint with the Law Society of Alberta in regards to Redford’s actions, the Premier responded “this is absolutely absurd.”
She went on to say, “If this honourable member decides to make a complaint, go ahead.”
However, it’s what the Premier may have said after that, as she sat down, that caused the most reaction. The word itself is not audible on video, but some observers claim she uttered a profanity.
– Joe Albertan (@JoeAlbertan) November 29, 2012
– Claudia Lemire (@claudlemire) November 30, 2012
“At our caucus room, if anyone utters ‘fuddle duddle’ they have to pay a penalty of five dollars, and I think we saw yesterday, exactly why you do that,” said Wildrose leader Danielle Smith Thursday.
“There’s a certain level of decorum I think that’s expected. You certainly don’t ever want to get on video saying course language,” she added. “I think it diminishes the office.”
Mensah says it’s up to the Premier to set the tone of political discourse in the house.
“The way she’s doing it right now is simply lashing out against the Opposition; it’s not going to work. The opposition parties are doing their job, they’re looking for vulnerability.”
Redford continues to deny she was the person behind the TRL decision, and that Verlyn Olson, who took the post as justice minister when she stepped down to pursue the PC leadership, had the final say on the firm.
“That firm had been identified, but that was far from the final decision,” says Olson. “The deal wasn’t made until way later, until June I think, and that was at my direction.”
“Verlyn Olsen was clearly thrown under the bus on this,” Anderson responds. “He had no hand in this.”
“Documents were released showing that she [Redford] personally approved the selection of a legal consortium with close ties to her ex-husband, good friend and longtime confident, Robert Hawks, to receive a $10 billion contract for tobacco litigation,” says Smith.
“We have tabled this memo… As Justice Minister, Alison Redford was the sole decision maker in awarding the litigation contract to International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers in 2010,” she claims.
“The Premier is entitled to defend herself,” Smith adds, “she is not entitled to her own version of the facts.”
On Thursday, the NDP called on the Premier to temporarily step down while the conflict of interest allegations are investigated.
“Documents came to light which I believe show very conclusively that she was very much involved in making that decision, and therefore I think that given she’s been accused of a potential conflict of interest, and has now has not told the truth with respect to her involvement, I think that casts a real shadow over her leadership of the province, and I think it would be appropriate if she step aside while we get to the bottom of it,” explained Brian Mason Friday.
“The Ethics Commissioner has received a complaint, or, more than one complaint, and will be looking into this matter,” Mason added.
This is the second time in two weeks that controversy has erupted around someone close to Redford. Last week, FOIP documents showed her sister, Lynn Redford, expensed about $3,400 to buy liquor, tickets and other items for PC party events, while in her current job as a Calgary health executive.
“This one party has been in office for a long period of time,” explains Mensah, “so there’s political baggage from the past, lapses, misjudgment, taking stuff for granted, but I believe the emphasis on the Premier’s sister, the Premier’s ex-husband, gives people the sense that they [the Opposition] are really targeting and they’re really going for her weak spots.”
“The Premier has to realize that this is part of the political game,” he adds.
Mensah says it’s too early to count Redford out, but the public is still waiting to see a display of leadership from her.
“The Premier simply has to find a way of maintaining control of the agenda of her government without being sidetracked… but at the same time, she needs to respond,” he says. “She needs to show there’s been change in the culture and the way politics is done in this province.”
With files from Vassy Kapelos