Ostracized. Ignored. Irrelevant. Welcome to life as an opposition MLA.
For three and a half years (2004–2008), I had the honour of being the Alberta Liberal Member of the Legislative Assembly for Edmonton-Meadowlark. The pay was pleasant, the perks were plentiful. I was treated with a degree of respect which is still afforded to elected representatives. I travelled around Alberta on the government dime, had dinner with the Queen (just Liz and me and a thousand of her closest friends) and met dozens of fine people. I was privileged to get to know the smartest, kindest and most committed people I have ever worked with. I made friends that I will cherish for the rest of my life. And by the end of my three-and-a-half years, I couldn’t wait to get out.
When I told family and friends that I was leaving politics voluntarily, their reaction was shock. Why would I leave such a great job, with all the perks and prestige and pay? I settled on a simple explanation: I liked politics; I didn’t like being a politician. The only people who didn’t react with surprise at my decision were my 15 fellow opposition MLAs.
My experience as an insider confirmed the opinions I’d originally had on the outside: democracy in Alberta is in dire straits, which is—ironically—all the more reason for good people to run for office. Public interest in politics has never been lower. The PCs are in the driver’s seat, merrily running over everything in their way. The civil service is completely cowed by the Tories, as are groups that are dependent on government funding. The PC party coffers are bulging, while opposition parties struggle with deficits. There’s no shortage of potential MLAs in Alberta, of course—but young people interested in politics or public service gravitate toward the PCs, not for what they stand for (they stopped being fiscally conservative years ago), but because they represent the easiest route to power and good jobs. In the Legislature, the entire apparatus of government lines up against a puny (though feisty) opposition.
Being an opposition politician in Alberta is both exciting and numbingly dull. It is occasionally uplifting, but often soul-destroying. There were moments where I felt like I’d actually made a contribution, and many more days when I had the empty feeling of having accomplished nothing.
Alberta’s opposition MLAs have the deck stacked against them. They are ostracized, marginalized and underfunded. In a province where one party has ruled for nearly 40 years, they are considered enemies of the state, second-class members of the same club. While there are dozens of safe Tory seats where a mannequin could win—and may have, judging from what I saw in the Legislature—there were no safe Alberta Liberal seats. To be an Alberta Liberal MLA is to be trapped in a never-ending struggle just to keep your job.
For the right person, being an MLA is a dream. Liberal MLA Rick Miller often said it was the best job he ever had. Most of the MLAs I toiled with from 2004–2008 excelled at the job, relished it, even. But not me. Many times while sitting in that ornate chamber, I asked myself: what am I doing here?
Outside of the Legislature, those doubts lessened. An MLA’s job is divided into Legislature and constituency work. “Constit” work is the meat-and-potatoes stuff that should get you re-elected (if life were fair, which it is not) and gives you the feeling that you’ve actually contributed something. MLAs help constituents negotiate government mazes, write letters on their behalf and help people down on their luck. (We often got calls from Tory supporters in other constituencies who couldn’t get help from their own MLA. Most of us politely told these people to take a hike—you wanted a Tory, you got a Tory.) We notarized items, attended countless community events, went to dozens of lunches and dinners and packed on the pounds. We hosted events in our constituency to remind voters we existed, and produced newsletters showing all the wonderful work we were doing. We were, essentially, campaigning for four years.
Constituency work was important, and a good vote-getter. But what we all craved was the headline or the evening news sound bite, and the best chance of achieving your moment of fame was while the Legislature was sitting.
The Alberta Legislature is one of the least active in Canada. The Tories look upon legislative sessions like a trip to the in-laws’, as an obligation that is barely to be tolerated. While the Tories wanted sessions to end as quickly as possible, the opposition prefers to draw them out. A longer session means more Question Periods, and “QP” is what it’s all about. The house is full and reasonably lively; the media are watching. It is the only part of the legislative day that is televised live. While I suspect the viewing audience is made up predominantly of shut-ins, the elderly, political junkies, relatives of MLAs, staff of government departments and people who’ve misplaced their TV remotes, it’s still on TV. Just like Jerry Springer.
The opposition in Alberta is a 97-pound weakling, forever getting sand kicked in his face by the bigger boys on the other side. But QP (or as I called it, The Show) is the one time when we can play the part of the “bully.”
QP face time was a precious commodity, jealously fought over in caucus. On a typical day, we would manage to get in anywhere from eight to 10 questions in the allotted 50 minutes. Since the first two questions were reserved for the Opposition leader, that left only six to eight questions a day for everyone else. Some MLAs got to ask more questions due to the big-ticket nature of their portfolios, leaving those of us with lesser portfolios to scrap over the leftovers.
Owing to the importance of QP, we spent an inordinate amount of time discussing strategy and jockeying for position in our morning meetings. The research staff would come up with a tentative list of questions based on what was in the media that day, what we perceived to be hot issues, or information we had ferreted out ourselves. We would then spend a good part of the daily morning meeting deciding on the order that we would ask the questions, starting out with our best stuff and working our way down, on the assumption that by the end of QP the media had pretty well stopped listening.
While we Liberals were a remarkably congenial group, the daily QP meeting could be a source of some friction. Some MLAs would pout (or worse) if they hadn’t been “on the board” for a few days. The general impression was that if you asked QP questions, you were getting TV face time and had a chance at making the evening news or the next day’s paper, since the media’s attention is focused almost entirely on QP. Winning mention on TV or the papers showed your constituents that you were doing your job, which improved your chances of re-election. Or so we thought.
When it works, QP is great—a rollicking, cacophonous show of political bravado and bluster. When it flops, QP can also stand for Quiet Period, sound and mock fury signifying nothing.
You could never tell where a QP would go. There were plenty of times when we thought we had an explosive issue that would rock the house—and it ended up being a dud. Other times, QP would explode and come close to disintegrating in a hail of catcalls and insults. Mondays were usually dead, Thursdays (the end of the legislative week) were usually lively, particularly before a long weekend or a break. Whichever way it went, the one certainty was that you would not get many answers. As Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Ken Kowalski reminded us so often in his supercilious way, it was called “Question Period,” not “Answer Period.”
The quality of the “answer” you received depended upon the minister you questioned. Some were formidable adversaries. Shirley McClellan, the flinty Minister of Finance, would stare directly at you with a look that said “go ahead, make my day.” If you really wanted to get her angry, you could ask a question about the millions of dollars the government grants to horse racing, a sport she loves. She would practically fly into a rage. I bumped into her once at the Edmonton parade, and she couldn’t have been nicer to me. But in the Leg, she was all business.
I had a lot of respect for Ron Stevens and was glad I didn’t have to spar with him. He answered every question with a Buster Keaton deadpan—but he knew his stuff and was never rattled. Lyle Oberg, widely seen as aloof, generally refrained from histrionics and answered questions in a straight-ahead manner. Ted Morton, on the other hand, couldn’t resist turning every question into a right vs. left diatribe.
Others members of the government were so easy to rattle, it was like using an Uzi to shoot fish in a barrel.
Guy Boutilier, minister of the environment, was easily riled. While in a rage—a state he was pretty much always in—Boutilier did a distinctive chopping motion with his hands. One day, while in full chopping mode, his seatmate, Energy Minister Greg Melchin, mimicked his motions with a broad smile on his face. It was funny as hell, if entirely unprofessional. The easiest target was Luke Ouellette. When he would lift his considerable frame to speak, you could see the look of terror and confusion on his face. As he rambled through incoherent answers, surrounding MLAs (from his own party, mind you) could barely stifle their laughter.
Mike Cardinal was an amiable minister and sometimes sent hard candy over to Bill Bonko and me, but he was also prone to verbal blunders. One day, when we were pounding him on the government’s inability to plan for the future, Cardinal blurted out: “Only Liberals worry about the future.” We roared and dined out on that one for a long time.
Once the time for questions expired, most MLAs, except those poor sods who had house duty, would leave the chamber and go about their other duties. The media would get their quotes and write their stories. But just because the curtain had fallen on The Show didn’t mean there weren’t more acts to come.
The rest of the day and night consisted of bill debates, an examination in excruciating detail of government business. In some provinces, debates might actually result in changes to bills. Not here. Government bills are set in stone. I can count on the fingers of one hand without using my thumb or pinky the number of times the government changed a bill thanks to opposition suggestions.
Despite the long odds of actually effecting change, the opposition took its job seriously. The caucus staff would read over every bill, look for problems, contact “stakeholders” and put together briefings about all but the most innocuous bills. The briefings would range from a couple of pages to dozens, depending on the complexity and importance of the bill. It was then our job to go into the Legislature and knowledgeably discuss anything from healthcare to fruit and vegetable legislation.
MLAs were regularly called upon to speak for the maximum time allowed, usually 10 minutes (which I never did). On a good night, the debate would be civil and respectful. Interesting points would be raised, and a minister would rise to defend the government. On a bad night—a.k.a. most nights—we would talk and talk and talk, while other MLAs would chatter among themselves, surf the web, read books or sleep.
Very early on in my term, I came to the realization that it hardly mattered what was said in the Legislature. One night, Hugh MacDonald, who was one of the best at speaking for long periods of time, was up talking about some issue. I was new in the Leg and listening intently to what he was saying. But it slowly dawned on me that nobody else was listening. When Hugh started waxing poetic about how much he used to like the daffodils on the Legislature grounds, I realized that 90 per cent of what was said in the Legislature was irrelevant.
On bad nights I would be sitting in a near catatonic state, counting burned-out light bulbs while somebody droned on. To keep myself amused while someone was talking, I would look around the Legislature to see if anybody was actually listening. Regularly, nobody was, particularly when it was one of the more loquacious members of the opposition, like Lori Blakeman and Hugh MacDonald, or David Eggen and Raj Pannu of the New Democrats. Most government members never roused themselves from their comfy chairs to enter into a debate.
Nighttime sessions were the worst, with Wednesdays easily the worst of the worst. Wednesday night was Lobbying Night, when organizations would take Tory MLAs to the Royal Glenora Club to wine and dine them, sometimes picking them up in limos. Opposition MLAs, of course, were not invited. Returning to the Leg with their bellies full of food and expensive booze, the Tories were at their rude, arrogant, obnoxious worst.
This is not to say there was no camaraderie among MLAs. During what is called Committee of the Whole, an open-ended discussion of every line of a bill, MLAs were free to leave their seats, take off their jackets and sit wherever they liked. Members of all parties would wander on over to the opposite side and sit with MLAs from the other camp. Sometimes we would discuss upcoming bills, but most of the time it was behind-the-scenes gossip or the kind of idle chit-chat one makes with co-workers. On longer nights, the Tories might send food over to our lounge. But those rare moments of civility did not make up for the rancorous rest of the time.
When I decided to quit politics, it felt as if a large black cloud had lifted from above my head. I didn’t realize the impact being an MLA had on me until my last day as a member. We were awaiting the Throne Speech and subsequent election call. We were in a giddy, if tense, mood. Everyone was anticipating personal victories, and with the addition of newcomers, looking forward to forming a healthy, confident opposition.
As the only MLA stepping down, I was asked to say a few parting words. We were sitting around the jury-rigged conference table with its hodgepodge of mismatched chairs, and I had a little speech prepared in my mind. I said a couple of words, felt my throat tighten up, then paused. I tried again, failed, and gave up before I choked up completely. I may have hated the job, but I loved the people. Still do.
I retired from politics last spring. Sadly, so too did many of my friends, albeit not voluntarily. Despite their yeoman efforts on behalf of their constituents, despite the thousands of hours in the Legislature fighting the good fight for Albertans, almost half of the Liberal MLAs I worked with were turfed by voters.
Why? Because they weren’t Conservatives. Now you know why I got out of politics.
Maurice Tougas is the former MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark.
This article was originally published in May 2009.
You can find other articles that have resurfaced for the election here.
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