Opinion: This time, Kenney is in danger of going too far

The Jason Kenney government has signalled it will introduce an ambition legislative agenda in coming days, including the speedy elimination of the loathed carbon tax.

It’s not surprising the United Conservative Party would want to erase much of the product of four years of NDP power, but it is unusual to so quickly dwell on matters of little public concern.

The government has said that on Tuesday, it will begin changing the rules of order, which are the policies that govern how the legislature conducts itself and how MLAs are expected to behave. Among the changes, for instance, is the ability of MLAs to abstain from voting on legislation.

The impetus for the amendment is the UCP’s experience last year with Bill 9, which established a zone around abortion clinics where protesters are prohibited. Because the UCP didn’t support the legislation, but didn’t want to be seen as opposing women’s rights, its members left the House each time a vote was called.

The spectacle of UCP members skulking away on 14 occasions is something the party wants to avoid in future, even though, as government, it’s no longer at risk of such humiliation.

The option of abstaining from a vote exists at the federal level and in some other provinces, but the hasty revision is a clumsy effort by a government in its earliest days. All it has done is stir up awkward memories of the party’s discomfort with an emotionally charged piece of legislation.

Shouldn’t we be electing representatives who are prepared to make tough decisions, not just weigh in on the easy ones? There’s no honour in MLAs sitting on their hands.

If they’re not prepared to express an opinion, they should get out of the way and leave room for less politically connected candidates who are prepared to represent the people.

More perplexing is the government’s proposal to end the longstanding tradition of MLAs banging on their desks as a theatrical expression of support. Its hope of reducing distracting noise may be well intended, but the prohibition is heavy-handed.

The government already has a number of tools it can use to dictate what goes on inside the House. If the UCP wants to instruct its own caucus members to abstain from banging on their desks, fine, but it shouldn’t be limiting what the opposition can do to demonstrate its support.

The proposal leaves Albertans with the impression the government wants to control not only the agenda, but the personal behaviour of other elected officials.

Actually, it’s not so much an impression, as a fact. Such high-handedness reflects poorly on the government.

The legislature isn’t a sober court, where positions are dryly advanced and decisions are rendered based on the evidence.

The chamber is a place where ideas are hotly contested and politicians passionately defend their convictions and their constituents.

To propose that all exercises of the public’s business should be carried out void of emotion, is to misunderstand the value of rigorous public debate.

If the government is sincerely interested in elevating the quality of discussion, it can set an example by putting a stop to personal insults and pointless barbs — tactics that do nothing to further the reputation of our politicians.

A few years back, an Innisfail teacher took 90 Grade 6 students to the legislature and was disgusted at the low-brow way in which MLAs conducted themselves. Tom Stones said pupils witnessed invitations from one MLA to another to go outside and fight.

“Our students did not observe elected representatives working on behalf of their constituents to make a better Alberta,” said the teacher.

“Instead, the lesson that students took away is that behaviour that is not acceptable at school is commonplace in the legislature.”

The government should focus on making Alberta better, not on tinkering with harmless customs that have stood the test of time.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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