How our provincial government is looking to find solutions and modernize legislation

For more than a decade in British Columbia, MLAs have been allowed to go on maternity leave – but in Alberta, they still are not. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said in November that she wanted to look into changing this, but has yet to do so.

This issue only recently came to the forefront in the Alberta legislature after New Democrat member and Deputy Whip Stephanie McLean from Calgary-Varsity announced that she was due in February. McLean just gave birth on Feb. 12 to son Patrick, but it remains unclear if she will take leave. Members of the legislature don’t pay into employment insurance (EI), thus raising the issue of whether or not they can take advantage of its services.

In British Columbia, the story is different and has been since 2000, in part thanks to amendments championed by Linda Reid, the current Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in B.C.

According to Reid, the only reason these amendments weren’t originally implemented is because, “When the standing rules [for the legislature] were first written in the early days, they didn’t anticipate women becoming elected, let along being in office and giving birth.”

MLAs in Alberta are allowed 10 unexcused absences before they are penalized, and maternity leave is currently not classified as an approved absence. Because of this, McLean runs the risk of being penalized $100 a day for every missed sitting in the Legislature after 10 days.

Brian Mason, the current Government House Leader, said the government is reviewing the rules of the legislature, particularly with respect to penalties for missing a session. They are also looking to provide childcare within the vicinity of the legislature for MLAs and all government employees.

“We’ve elected a legislature, and a caucus, and now a cabinet, that is much more representative of the actual demographics of the province,” Mason said of the government’s shift to a younger, more gender-balanced caucus. “We think that’s really, really, positive and we’re really happy about that, but it means the rules have to change.”

Greg Clark, the leader of the Alberta Party, enthusiastically supports allowing MLAs to take maternal and parental leave, and said he has not heard any opposition to this.

According to Clark, the rules in the legislature need to be changed in order to bring them into the 21st century, and docking an MLA that takes maternity leave is not acceptable.

NDP MLA Brian Mason, the Alberta Government House Leader, said the provincial government is reviewing the rules of the legislature. According to Mason, the government is moving in a direction that is younger and more gender-balanced, and the legislature needs to adapt to these changes by altering policy accordingly.
Photo courtesy of Dave Cournoyer, CC
“We need to modernize the rules in the legislature to make sure it reflects the reality of the way the world is today, and that women have the same opportunity to participate in the political process as men,” Clark said.

In a statement released by the official opposition, the Alberta Wildrose Party have also thrown their support behind those fighting to implement the changes in Alberta. The Wildrose is supportive of making changes that would allow pregnancy and post-partum leave to be approved reasons for an MLA’s absence, and also supports making physical changes to the legislature to make it more “family-friendly.”

Setting an example in B.C.

In 2000, Reid gave birth to her daughter Olivia and came back to work in less than a week. If she had taken any more than 10 unexcused days off, she would have been penalized $300 a day. When she got back, Reid began working to amend legislation that would allow MLAs to take maternity leave.

Reid told Gordon Campbell – the leader of the B.C. Liberal Party at the time – “if we (the Liberal party of B.C.) make it to government, we have to make some provisions that actually make sense to people.”

Because of Reid’s work, amendments were made to Bill 24, the Miscellaneous Amendment Act, which would remove penalties against new mothers if they are “unable to attend by reason of sickness or another reason approved by the Speaker.”

In 2001, current B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who was then MLA for Port Moody-Burnaby Mountain, was the first MLA to benefit from the changes.

Clark believes that Alberta should follow suit by giving the Speaker the ability to grant leave unconditionally in these situations. By giving these powers to the Speaker, Clark said that there would be an expectation that every case regarding maternal/paternal leave would be approved without issue.

When asked about whether or not this was feasible, Mason said that this is just one of the options that the government is currently looking at.

However, according to Lori Williams, associate professor of political science at Mount Royal University, issues around retaining the confidence of the house during key votes and constituency representation need to be addressed before any amendments are made.

Key issues need to be addressed before changes are made

In order for a government to remain in power, either federally or provincially, it needs to have a majority of support from either their MPs at the federal level, or the MLAs at the provincial level. Because of party discipline – a tradition where MPs and MLAs always vote along party lines – maintaining that support or confidence isn’t usually a problem for governments that won a majority of their legislature’s members.

But Williams said if there is a minority provincial government – something that has never happened in Alberta – or MLAs or MPs are given a free vote and are allowed to break party discipline, it is imperative for the representatives to be present to support their parties. Otherwise, if the government loses a vote, it could be expected to dissolve, triggering an election.

“You have to have all of your representatives there, whether they be MPs at the federal level, or MLAs at the provincial level. You need your people there for the entire debate and they have to be there for the vote, so you can’t take time off for childcare,” said Williams.

Williams continued by saying that if any amendments were made, it would be unlikely that members would be able to take extended leave for maternity because it’s unfeasible to have a constituency remain unrepresented for an extended period of time.

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark fully supports allowing MLAs to take maternal or paternal leave and said that penalizing MLAs who take leave is unacceptable. He said that Alberta should follow in the footsteps of B.C. by allowing the speaker to unconditionally grant leave for MLAs.
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Clark said that pairing up neighboring constituencies using a “buddy-system” could help alleviate this problem. According to Clark, constituencies are already working together on certain issues, so it’s not too much of a stretch to think that a neighbouring MLA would step up to assist their colleague. Clark also said that he has personally reached out to McLean to help provide any assistance given her current predicament.

“I’m absolutely happy to help personally and my office staff would be thrilled to help,” said Clark. “In fact, we’d love to babysit if we get a chance.”

However this course of action remains problematic, because it still does not address the need for members to be present during key votes.

Instead, Williams thinks accommodations such as on-site childcare, or the ability to work remotely outside of key votes or an election campaign, may be more reasonable.

Mason has echoed this, saying that the government has been looking at options to make the legislature more accommodating for MLAs and other government employees with young families.

“They’ll make some physical changes in the legislature. They’re taking out one of the offices which was used for making phone calls, and putting in baby changing stations there,” Mason said. “We’re going to be reviewing the hours of the legislature on an on-going basis to make sure that they’re suitable for people with young families.”

According to Reid, the change should be simple for Premier Notley because it was not difficult to do in B.C. Members of the legislature in B.C. were “extremely supportive” of female MLAs during their pregnancies and after giving birth, said Reid.

“We haven’t had difficulties with it,” Reid said. “The job is challenging, no questions, it’s very time consuming, but it’s 2015.”

tryan@cjournal.ca

Thumbnail courtesy of Hugh Lee, Creative Commons

The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, mritchie@cjournal.ca