A week ago, few people knew her name.
Today, Robyn Luff is the talk of Alberta politics, particularly in NDP circles.
To Premier Rachel Notley, she’s become something else: an unexpected problem.
For those who haven’t been following along, the Calgary backbench MLA who had been nearly invisible in her 3½ years in office stepped into the spotlight this week by making accusations of a “culture of fear and intimidation” within her own party.
The outburst was a nuisance for the government, but one they expected — or hoped — would blow over in a day or two. Luff’s NDP colleagues swiftly kicked her out of caucus, dismissed her claims, and that was supposed to be the end of it.
But Luff wasn’t done.
She decided to share more of the NDP’s dirty laundry, setting off a chain reaction of trouble for the government and providing a hard lesson for Notley on how much damage an ignored backbencher can do.
Some of Luff’s behind-the-scenes revelations were amusing, including that caucus members were ordered not to have their picture taken with federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
Other claims were more serious, especially one that the NDP caucus “wasn’t completely without fault” when it came to MLAs behaving badly toward women.
Journalists started asking questions, and got Notley at the podium Thursday.
“Are there any allegations or incidents of inappropriate behaviour toward women among your MLAs or among the NDP?” she was asked.
“Not that I’m aware of,” responded Notley, who then talked about the sexual harassment policy in place for caucus and staff.
Again, that seemed to put the issue to rest, or at least into a stalemate.
But a couple of hours later, the premier’s communications director Cheryl Oates came back to journalists with a different story that largely substantiated Luff’s claim.
Complaints of non-criminal sexual misconduct had, in fact, been made against two NDP MLAs. Third-party investigators were assigned, who concluded training and education were sufficient to rectify the behaviour.
Why didn’t Notley acknowledge those alleged transgressions in her response?
According to Oates, it was because she misunderstood the question, thinking she was being asked only about allegations that had originated from within caucus.
The complaints made against the two MLAs involved behaviour that occurred outside the workplace.
Undoubtedly there will critics who do not accept that explanation and will feel Notley was covering for her colleagues. I’m not prepared to go there, in part because it’s near impossible to know how someone else perceives a question, and in part because the premier’s office responded quickly to correct the record.
Nonetheless, the news that MLAs still in caucus were allegedly involved in sexual misbehaviour is a big problem for the NDP, which has worked hard to be the party of social justice, equality and standing up for women.
It’s also cast a shadow over the male members of caucus, with speculation rampant around who might be the subject of the allegations.
Notley can only hope no more complaints surface, and that the party has handled each case appropriately.
Luff’s accusation of being controlled has also ignited an uncomfortable conversation about the hyper-partisanship with which the Canadian parliamentary system seems to operate.
I don’t think Luff has made her case for bullying. Most of her complaints are those of a disgruntled backbencher who has tired of the control mechanisms most parties employ.
However, she raises legitimate questions about whether democracy is served by scripting every question and statement, and denying individuals the chance to break from party lines once in awhile.
Luff clearly wants to keep the conversation going. On Friday, she provided Postmedia with another statement that called for an independent investigation into her bullying allegations.
If the investigation finds no wrongdoing, Luff promises to resign her seat — which seems an empty sacrifice since she isn’t planning to run for re-election anyway.
If the investigation backs up her claims, she wants Notley to resign.
United Conservative Leader Jason Kenney will have to go, too, since that party has also falsely insisted it doesn’t stifle dissenting views, she said.
Though it might be good fun, neither Notley nor Kenney are going to agree to Luff’s offer.
But the fact she is even getting publicity for it is an example of the conundrum leaders face when a frustrated subordinate has reached the boiling point.
You can grant the MLA’s wishes and allow them to speak as they see fit, but then that privilege would be demanded by all members — some of whom may hurt the party.
Or you can kick out the MLA, which carries the risk they will spill the party’s dirty secrets and start a crusade from the sidelines.
In this case, the NDP must be wondering if it made the wrong choice.
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