Thomson: Premier Redford delivers Easter-break pep talk

 By Graham Thomson, Edmonton Journal March 23, 2013

Spring might not have come early to Alberta — but Easter has. At least it has to the Alberta legislature.

The legislative session is taking a two-week break that straddles the Easter long weekend. I’m not sure even the new Pope could make Easter stretch into two weeks, but he is merely a papal monarch, after all, and not an Alberta MLA.

On Thursday, as government MLAs headed off to their constituencies, or perhaps to fields farther south that are greener and warmer and golfier, they received an email from Premier Alison Redford.

“We know the opposition enters the constituency break dispirited and frustrated. They should be,” Redford says in a missive that sounds like a coach’s pep talk at half time. “We know that they’ll come at us harder than ever in two weeks.”

Redford’s letter manages to be simultaneously defensive and offensive, which sort of reflects the government’s posture during the first three weeks of this legislative sitting. The government is on the defensive over the new provincial budget and is facing labour unrest, particularly from physicians. At the same time, it is going on the offensive against the opposition parties.

“We knew this session would be tough,” Redford says in her letter. “We have taken firm control of the agenda and are forcing the opposition to respond to us.”

Well, yes and no. The government is performing better than it did last fall when it was beset with a series of scandals. So far this sitting the government has indeed been setting the agenda but that’s mainly because the whole session is focused on the new budget.

The letter takes another dig at the opposition: “While we’re standing on the side of the families who elected us to lead, they’re resorting to cheap gimmicks and fearmongering.”

Well, yes, but it’s not as if the opposition has the monopoly on gimmickry and the mongering of fear.

Earlier Thursday, for example, the government opened up a new tactic against the Wildrose Opposition by using — or perhaps more accurately abusing — question period. Question period is supposed to be 50 minutes each day of the legislative sitting set aside for MLAs of all parties to hold cabinet ministers to account. Opposition members, of course, use the time to attack the government with questions along the lines of “Why is the minister so incompetent at everything?” while backbench government MLAs are notorious for asking puffball questions of ministers along the lines of “Would the minister tell us what a wonderful job you’re doing?”

This week, Progressive Conservative MLA Mike Allen took the puffball question to a new low by inviting Transportation Minister Ric McIver to attack the Wildrose over its suggestion to trim $1.7 million from the transportation department’s information technology service.

“Last night, the Opposition proposed cutting the department that provides Alberta’s important transportation infrastructure,” said Allen, before asking, “Will this cut-and-slash approach of the Opposition influence the government’s commitments to keep transportation infrastructure safe for Albertans?”

It was a ridiculously partisan comment posing as a question and it allowed McIver to break into a partisan rant of his own: “I was shocked, frankly, that the Opposition would propose to impair our ability to monitor and repair bridges and roads, threatening the safety of Albertans while they travel around Alberta. This clearly shows the Wildrose Opposition’s lack of regard for the safety of Albertans.”

And so it went with Allen using his three “questions” to set up McIver to bash the Wildrose. All opposition parties were predictably and rightly outraged at the Allen-McIver exchange that not only unfairly accused the Wildrose of deliberately wanting to “sacrifice the safety of Albertans” but also undermined the tradition and intent of question period.

All of this might sound esoteric. After all, the opposition routinely uses question period to roundly attack the government, not simply to hold it to account. However, there is an important parliamentary issue here. There is also an interesting political sub-text. The Allen-McIver exchange makes the government look thin-skinned and frightened of the Wildrose.

It might be a little frightened of the NDP too. Redford has used question period of late to attack the NDP, at times out of the blue. On Tuesday, responding to a question from the Wildrose, Redford declared: “There is only one party in this legislature that wants to take jobs out of Alberta, and that’s the NDP.”

Her mini-broadside was no doubt in part prompted by the recent anti-Keystone comments of federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair — but Redford was also targeting Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason. And he couldn’t be happier. Mason gleefully counted six mentions of the NDP — all negative — by Redford during question period on Tuesday alone.

That’s a badge of honour for Mason, who has a deep understanding of what Oscar Wilde meant when he said the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. And he thinks it reinforces a recent public opinion poll showing the NDP gaining strength in Edmonton.

Despite what Redford might say, not all opposition MLAs are entering the Easter break “dispirited and frustrated.” And if government MLAs continue to abuse important legislative traditions such as question period, they deserve an opposition that returns from the break reinvigorated and ready to take on the government “harder than ever.”

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