If only MLA Robyn Luff had made one phone call before ending her political career in self-destructive chaos.
If only she had tracked down the one other person who had trod the path she was about to tread.
If only she had called former MP Brent Rathgeber.
Rathgeber quit the federal Conservative caucus in 2013, in part because of stifling party discipline that had strangled and frustrated his ability to represent the constituents in Edmonton-St. Albert.
Even though Rathgeber went on to lose the 2015 election running as an Independent, he emerged with a reputation as a person of principle and is now ethics adviser to Edmonton city council.
Luff’s story of backbench frustration is much like Rathgeber’s, except that instead of emerging as a person of principle she is in danger of ending up the punchline to a bad political joke.
When Luff declared this week she would boycott the Alberta Legislature because of “a culture of fear and intimidation” emanating from the premier’s office, she immediately made headlines.
And drew guffaws.
She made headlines because of her inflammatory accusations against the premier and the whole NDP political apparatus.
She earned guffaws because on closer inspection her complaints boiled down to grumblings about party discipline.
Her written statement outlining what she thought of as “fear and intimidation” read like something written by someone who had no idea how politics actually works.
She was upset that her private member’s statements had to be vetted by party officials, that she had to parrot government announcements on social media, that her private member’s bill got sidetracked.
She issued what amounted to an ultimatum to the premier: overturn the whole system of party discipline or I won’t show up for work.
Her demands outstripped her complaints.
But Rathgeber is sympathetic to those complaints.
“Although we’ve inherited party discipline from the British Westminster model, we’ve taken party discipline to dangerous levels,” Rathgeber said in an interview Thursday. “I do believe that parties have too much control over their backbenchers.”
Rathgeber quit the Stephen Harper caucus because he had grown frustrated at being micromanaged and browbeaten by the “boys in short pants” in the Prime Minister’s Office.
For Rathgeber, the last straw came when PMO officials gutted the intent of his private member’s bill to force senior bureaucrats to disclose their salaries and expenses if asked to do so in a freedom of information request.
There are obvious parallels to Luff’s frustrations.
But one of the major differences between the two is that Rathgeber voluntarily quit caucus and held a news conference to explain his actions.
Luff, on the other hand, did neither.
In fact, she was “disappointed” to discover her actions had consequences. Members of the NDP caucus voted (unanimously, we’re told) to kick her out.
Then there are her suggestions (which sound a bit like demands) to improve the system. They include having cabinet ministers appointed by an independent panel rather than by the premier. Such a system would create chaos.
Cabinet is the seat of power in the Westminster parliamentary system.
After an election, the lieutenant-governor asks the leader of the winning party to form a government — in other words, to appoint a cabinet.
Delegating that job to an unelected panel would turn the system upside down and lead to cabinet ministers being responsible not to the premier or caucus or even voters but to a third-party panel.
Perplexed by Luff’s actions
Rathgeber is careful not to criticize Luff but he, like most people watching this story unfold, is perplexed by Luff’s actions. And he says she has undermined her position by boycotting the legislature.
“If representing your constituents is your primary concern, you should resign from caucus and show up for work and represent your constituents,” he said.
A major difference between Rathgeber and Luff is that if Rathgeber had kept silent and played the party game, he would have been a well-paid backbench Conservative MP for years, decades even. That’s why Rathgeber’s actions speak to principle.
Luff, though, did not have a political future, if public opinion polls are correct.
The NDP is not doing well in Calgary.
Luff is yet another Calgary politician elected under the NDP banner in 2015 who is not running again.
Like most of them, Luff says she wants to spend more time with her family.
Like most of them, she was a paper candidate who did not expect to win but who suddenly found herself thrust into government.
Since then she has been caught in a dilemma as voters in Calgary soured on the NDP. How could she, as an NDP MLA, represent her constituents as they grew increasingly angry at NDP policies such as the carbon tax?
Luff’s response was to lash out at her own government.
That in itself is not bad. Rathgeber did the same thing.
But Rathgeber never stopped working, never stopped showing up in the House of Commons.
After having botched her departure from the NDP caucus, Luff should at least glean one lesson from Rathgeber’s story — and go back to work.