Premier Jason Kenney’s government is changing voting rules at the Alberta legislature about one year after a bruising debate regarding abstentions on a bill about abortion clinics.
Right now, Alberta legislators can say yes or no to proposed legislation, but must physically leave the chamber if they don’t want to vote at all.
Government house leader Jason Nixon said Friday that procedural changes to be introduced and voted on by all members next week will include allowing politicians to remain in their seats and abstain.
The abstentions would not be noted in the official record.
Nixon referenced a contentious debate a year ago over a government bill that expanded a buffer zone between clinic patients, staff and anti-abortion protesters.
At the time, Kenney and the United Conservatives were the Opposition and Rachel Notley’s NDP were in power.
As the bill moved through debate, Kenney’s caucus members walked out en masse 14 times to avoid discussing or voting on the bill.
Kenney is against abortion, and dismissed the bill as unnecessary game-playing by the government in an area best left to the courts.
His UCP caucus members were mocked and jeered by the NDP when they repeatedly headed to the exits to avoid voting.
“That’s one of the other things that we are changing,” Nixon said.
“I’m not going to relitigate the decision that was made by the Opposition at that time, but the reality is that there was no avenue within our standing orders to do anything but walk out if we chose to abstain.”
The changes are expected to pass, given that Kenney’s party has a majority of seats.
Opposition NDP deputy house leader Heather Sweet said the decision is weak-kneed and anti-democratic since members are voted in by their constituents to go to the legislature and make decisions.
“He’s doing it because of Bill 9 (the abortion clinic bill). We nailed them when they walked out because they didn’t want to talk about women’s rights issues,” said Sweet.
“Now they don’t have to walk out. They just don’t have to vote. Albertans better pay attention and they better hold their MLAs to account because they are getting permission by this premier to not have to represent them.”
Across Canada, the issue is a mixed bag. Politicians in the House of Commons are allowed to abstain, as are legislators in Quebec and Ontario. Other provinces, including British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, give politicians only yes-or-no options.
Another of Nixon’s proposed changes is a ban on members thumping their desks during debate, which Kenney has called distracting and demeaning. The motion specifically prohibits pounding the top of a chamber desk.
Nixon was asked about possible loopholes: What if members bang other parts of the desks or other objects that are handy?
Nixon said the UCP would respond if that were the case, but hopes the Opposition will honour the rule’s intent.
Sweet said the NDP caucus will discussion “how we’re going to deal with this.”
She suggested desk-thumping is part of Alberta’s political tradition and is meant to show support, not disrespect.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press