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Alberta NDP backbencher protests ‘toxic culture,’ refuses to sit in legislature

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WATCH ABOVE: A backbencher with the Alberta NDP says her party's leadership uses a culture of fear and intimidation to keep members from properly representing the people who voted them in. Robyn Luff says she won't take her seat in the legislature in protest. Tom Vernon reports – Nov 5, 2018

A backbencher with Alberta’s governing NDP says she won’t take her seat in the legislature to protest what she calls a “toxic culture” in the party caucus.

Robyn Luff, a first-term legislature member for Calgary East, says she can’t do her job representing her constituents because of strict controls placed on her by officials in Premier Rachel Notley’s government.

“I have felt bullied by the NDP leadership for over 3 1/2 years and it must stop,” Luff said in a letter released Monday.

“Under Rachel Notley’s leadership, every power that MLAs are supposed to have to be able to represent their constituents in the legislature has been taken away or denied from the start.”

Luff could not be immediately reached for comment.

READ MORE: NDP’s Robyn Luff wins Calgary-East

In her letter, Luff said questions backbenchers ask of ministers in the house, designed to address issues of importance to constituents, are instead written by the ministries for the backbencher to deliver.

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Such questions, colloquially derided as “puffballs,” have been used by previous administrations and governments in some other provinces.

Luff also said backbenchers can lose the privilege of making a statement in the house if a previous statement is deemed inappropriate.

She said party leadership decides who speaks on which bill, and statements and questions at committee hearings are all scripted.

Those who step out of line fear punishment, such as losing a spot on a committee or chances to speak in the house, she said.

“I have had members statements taken away, and (backbencher-sponsored) private members bills edited ’til they weren’t what I intended.”

Luff added that she was told that “not jumping when a (departmental) chief of staff told me to” has stalled her career.

She wants Notley to lead a public discussion on the issue and said she won’t return to the house until that happens.

Government house leader Brian Mason said the party is aware of Luff’s concerns and were trying to work them out. He rejected Luff’s assertion that she can’t speak her mind and represent her constituents, and added that governing demands working together.

“People are permitted to speak their minds, and they have an opportunity to do that,” said Mason. “Everybody in a caucus, especially large caucuses, is frustrated from time to time.

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“But you take decisions and you go forward, and people have to realize that that’s the way government works.”

Mason said Luff needs to make a decision rather than sit in legislative limbo.

“I don’t think it’s fair to her constituents to just say, ‘I’m not happy with how things work, so I’m not going to show up for work,”’ said Mason.

Luff is the second backbencher to quit Notley’s caucus.

A year ago, Calgary legislature member Karen McPherson quit and later joined the Alberta Party. McPherson said she has reached out to Luff and said Luff’s concerns dovetail with her experience in Notley’s caucus.

“I can certainly understand where Robyn is coming from,” said McPherson. “That was a lot of the reason why I crossed the floor.”

READ MORE: Member of Alberta NDP Karen McPherson leaves caucus to sit as independent

Jason Nixon, house leader for the Opposition United Conservatives, called Luff’s allegations “shocking and extremely alarming.” The NDP needs to take cues from his party and let people speak up, he said.

“That is not how our caucus operates,” said Nixon. “We have open discussions. Sometimes we’ve had free votes.”

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