A kerfuffle in the legislature this week resulted in Progressive Conservative Leader Ric McIver being kicked out of the Chamber. You might be tempted to think that the PC leader was at fault. In fact, it appears the Speaker of the Legislature, Bob Wanner, made several mistakes and McIver was responding with righteous indignation. Sometimes that’s the only tool a politician has when facing a majority government set on bending the rules to its favour.
At issue was a straightforward motion endorsing choice in education. As a private member, McIver launched what was supposed to be a one hour debate urging the Government to “affirm its commitment to allowing parents the choice of educational delivery for their children, including home, charter, private, francophone, separate or public education programs.” Indeed one of the great successes of the former PC government was creating a school system built on maximum parental choice. Unlike most other provinces, Alberta partially funds home schooling and private schools, and is the only province that allows charter schools that operate independently of public boards.
The problem arose when Calgary East MLA Robin Luffs, a former teacher, attempted to modify the proposal to allow parents the choice only “in such instances where they offer alternatives not available in the public system.” Quite rightly, McIver and his caucus were outraged at the change and what it implied: that government bureaucrats, not parents, should determine whether private, charter or home schooling has a place in Alberta.
But aside from the obvious ideological clash, there were important democratic issues at stake in this fight too. First, it is highly unusual for opposition motions to be amended at all. There is a limited amount of time allocated to these debates – only one hour – and normal practice is to take the motion as it is written and vote it either up or down.
Plus, the few times motions have been amended, which all seemed to take place in 2007, was when friendly amendments were proposed and accepted, not amendments that changed the entire meaning of the motion.
Finally, while MLAs were patiently making their arguments about why the amendment shouldn’t be allowed, a typewritten memo was accidently circulated to MLAs showing the Speaker had already made his decision to allow it before the counter arguments were even finished. By my count, that’s three errors from the Speaker. McIver called him out and refused to back down. That’s why he was removed from the legislature.
In the end, apologies happened all around and the NDP offered to pull back the amendment, reset the clock and restart the debate in two weeks’ time. That was the correct decision. Hopefully, the NDP won’t be tempted to try these shenanigans again. The purpose of private member motions is to allow members of other parties a chance to get their issues debated. If every motion can simply be rewritten by the government, there would be no point in having them at all.
More important will be to see whether the NDP vote in favour of McIver’s motion as it stands. There are now a great many self-described progressive voices clamouring to end funding for private and charter schools, including Public Interest Alberta, Progress Alberta, the Alberta Teachers Association and the Edmonton Public School Board.
The real battle has now begun. Parents who care about defending choice need to make sure they call their MLAs to tell them so. The debate returns on May 2.