There is a pregnant silence on the floor of the Alberta Legislative Assembly,
interrupted by three staccato raps on the heavy mahogany doors at the front
of the chamber. The doors swing open, members shuffle to their feet, and
a man intones, Madame Speaker, His Honour the Lieutenant Governor awaits.
The Sergeant-at-Arms, the Lieutenant Governor, the Premier, and the Clerk
sweep into the room and past the clerks table, each taking their respective
seat on the chamber floor. The members collapse into their seats, a stirring
Speech from the Throne is read, and the members bang their desks in approval,
quickly rising to their feet in ecstatic applause.
And so began the 2005 annual Alberta High School Model Legislature. Eighty-two
students from around the province have gathered under the Dome this Saturday
morning for a weekend of debating and learning about Parliamentary processes.
It was a diverse group of grade 10, 11 and 12 students who have a general
interest in debating, and a strong understanding of current events. Many
have experience in actual political activities; almost all volunteer in
other ways in their communities. Indeed, their résumés could read like
those of actual MLAs; their age is betrayed only by their height, haircuts,
and hipness. The gentlemen have not quite perfected the half-windsor, their
neckties self-consciously askew, while the confident strut of some of the
ladies is betrayed when they wobble on their high heels.
The night before, the returning participants are greeting familiar faces
in the Legislature Rotunda, occasionally pausing to introduce a newcomer.
A few clearly stand out, working the room as political veterans, while
others hang back, struck by their buttery-rich marble surroundings and
the Legislatures aura of power. But the moment for politicking quickly
passes, and the students proceed into the chamber for a briefing on Parliamentary
procedure. The briefer, who is also serving as the Speaker for the weekend,
is Jamie Tronnes, a Stephen Harper aide and University of Alberta graduate
who has flown in to Edmonton for this event. Tronnes distills hundreds
of pages of parliamentary authorities into a fifteen minute how-to guide
on Parliament. For the returning students, this is old hat; for the new
students, its a bit overwhelming. All will put the procedures to use soon
enough; for now, they are mustered off to their caucus rooms to begin 24
hours of strategizing and politicking.
The students teacher chaperones look on amusedly, knowing that many of
the students best-laid plans will come to naught. Some students clearly
covet leadership positions, and have been maneuvering for weeks within
their schools for their peers support. No schools delegation is large
enough to dominate, however, and the students must look elsewhere for support.
The art of coalition building becomes a matter of calculating support,
and sometimes settling scores. School rivalries certainly play a role:
many of these students have participated in other inter-collegiate speech
and debate activities, and are keen to out-maneuver strong individual rivals
or schools. Model Legislature forces these students to put aside at least
some of these differences, and in the spirit of the finest Parliamentary
tradition, the students quickly begin to negotiate and form alliances with
A caucus advisor, a university student volunteering his weekend, directs
the caucus through the process of electing a party leader, a house leader,
and a whip. The caucus advisor stipulates that each of these positions
represent a different school, to promote participation and to prevent one
school from dominating. Party leaders then select their cabinet ministers,
who will double as critics when in opposition. The caucus then turns its
attention to the substantive policy issues.
Some students are keen to discuss policy issues, angling for support of
their own partys bill while denigrating competing bills. The bills have
been prepared in advance by the organizing team, and this is the students
first opportunity to see them. A list of questions on the general topic
of each bill has been previously released, to allow students time to research.
One student arrives with a 2-inch thick binder of research material.
Bill topics are the hardest thing for the organizing team: they must be
simple, current, have clear partisan lines, be debatable, and easily amendable.
Coaches are also invited to offer suggestions. This year, the New Democrat
bill was the Alberta Fuel Act, to reduce gas prices; the Liberal bill concerned
public auto insurance (two-tier health care for cars wisecracks one student);
and the Conservative bill was the improbably named Competitiveness Amplification
Program of Innovation and Tax Assessment Liberty Act, mercifully abbreviated
as the CAPITAL Act.
The organizing team has spent the past several months bringing this event
together, not just writing the bills, but coordinating with the coaches,
refining the Standing Orders, preparing the order paper, arranging corporate
sponsorship, and issuing a news release. Besides the Speaker, Jamie Tronnes,
the group is managed by Howard Yeung, a U of A School of Business alumnus
and now a business consultant; Spence Nichol, a political science student
at U of A; Lisa Boukall, another business alumnus and strategic planner
in Calgary; and Anastasia Kulpa, a bilingual arts student at U of As Campus
St. Jean. The organizing team is supported by Willis Kachuk, the coordinator
of the Alberta Debate and Speech Association (ADSA). Kachuk takes care
of publicizing the event to high school coaches, and handles the details
of registration. He also sends thank-you notes out after the event, and
liaises with the Sergeant-at-Arms, who oversees access to the Legislatures
All-party support is what makes Model Legislature one of the few events
granted the privilege of using the actual Legislative Chamber each year.
The process of organizing the event begins the previous spring, with a
letter to Speaker Ken Kowalski formally requesting the use of the Legislature.
After his approval, the Sergeant-at-Arms office arranges for security
staff, conference rooms, and catering. A pretend mace, a lacquered wooden
bat gaudily bedecked with cereal box jewels and crowned by two arching
slices of tin, is also kindly provided.
This mace, of course, looks out of place on the Clerks table. It is surrounded
by the trappings of the Chamber: the mahogany Speakers chair and canopy
that dominates the room; the gigantic portraits of Queen Elizabeth and
Prince Philip that supervise the chamber; the green Pennsylvanian marble
and mahogany panelling laid over creamy white walls; and, of course, the
members desks, 82 mahogany boxes fronting 82 green leather chairs, the
headrests of which are embossed with the Alberta Coat of Arms. All is brightly
lit by six hundred light bulbs set in an arched ceiling.
Some of the people who actually work in this room are there that evening.
Seven MLAs representing each of the three major provincial parties (the
Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals, and the New Democrats) came out
to speak to the students, each urging this next generation of leaders to
continue to be involved in the political process. The MLAs are enthusiastic
about sharing their insights, especially about the bills, but the organizing
committee asks them to demur. This is an opportunity for the students to
put their political thinking to work.
Afterwards, a few guest MLAs loiter in the caucus rooms, curious to see
what the students have to say about each bill. In the Confederation Room
adjacent the chamber, Liberal MLA Mo Elsalhy asks a battery of pointed
questions of the newly-acclaimed Liberal leader: what is her leadership
style? How will she keep her party united? What is her strategy for promoting
the Liberal bill while defeating the others? The leader, a returning participant,
deftly answers Elsalhys questions, simultaneously solidifying the support
of her caucus.
Upstairs in the Carillon Room, the New Democrat caucus has just elected
its leader, a Grade 12 student who, like her Liberal counterpart, also
quickly takes charge. This caucus, however, is much more democratic, insisting
on short discussions and votes for each decision. They also stipulate that
there must be gender parity in the caucus positions.
On the floor of the Chamber, the Conservatives are having problems selecting
a leader. There is much ambition: everyone, it seems, wants to put their
stamp on the party by having an important position. Each candidate gives
a quick thirty second speech about why they want to be leader. One candidate,
a Grade 12 student, is a returning participant, the other a Grade 10 student
at Model Legislature for the first time. A two-way race for the party leadership
mirrors the oddities of real-life leadership contests. A group of Conservatives
from Calgary had, on the bus trip up to Edmonton, decided they would elect
the returning Grade 12 student as leader. But despite this faction having
a majority in caucus, their preferred candidate loses by one vote: three
girls had decided that the other candidate was cuter, and cast their votes
for him instead. Could this be the next Trudeaumania?
The new leader quickly finds himself on shaky ground. In his thirty second
leadership candidacy speech, he promised that all other positions would
be elected. But his first proclamation as leader is to appoint two friends
as House Leader and Whip. A storm of protest ensues, the appointments are
withdrawn, and elections are held.
By now each caucus has divided itself into working groups, each tasked
with examining one of the bills to decide whether the party will support
it, and what amendments should be made to it. Horse-trading with the other
two parties begins: since each party has almost exactly a third of the
seats, compromise with at least one of the other parties is a must.
The formal proceedings of Friday evening come to a conclusion at nine oclock.
Edmonton-area students retire to their homes, while the contingent from
Calgary returns to their hotel, where their politicking continues into
the night. All return bleary-eyed at eight thirty the next day, still slightly
tired, but definitely full of energy.
After hour-long caucus meetings with more back-room dealing, the House
convenes. The Premier has changed overnight; the Grade 10 student who was
elected to the position announces that he doesnt think hes qualified
to be leader, and he passes the job off to the student who was elected
The Opening Ceremonies commence with the Clerk advising that there is no
Speaker, and that one must be elected. The Premier and Leader of the Opposition
nominate the member for Barrhead-Westlock (the riding of actual Speaker
Ken Kowalski), where Tronnes is sitting, and she is unanimously elected.
Tronnes has fun resisting the tug of the Premier and Leader of the Opposition,
but makes it to the Speaker's chair to assert the privileges of the House
and begin presiding. The doors sweep open for the Lieutenant Governor,
who this year is Grant McLean, a former aide-de-camp to a Lieutenant Governor,
and the Speech from the Throne is read. Sensing the mood of the House to
proceed to the highlight of the weekend, Tronnes announces the start of
The first question, by tradition, goes to the Leader of the Opposition.
What is this government doing about the rising cost of gasoline? she
demands. The Premier blusters. Were doing lots to help out the average
Albertan. Everyones getting four hundred bucks in January! And were doing
other stuff, too. With this, he trails off, realizes hes got nothing
else to say, and concludes with the epic utterance, and, yeah. Hoots
of derision erupt from the Opposition benches, and catcalls about fat cats
sally across the floor.
Were someone simply listening to this Question Period, she would hear little
difference from an actual session.
For the organizers, that fact is somewhat frustrating. All of the organizers
are CPAC aficionados, with a definite preference for the informed, respectful
Prime Ministers Questions sessions of the British Parliament. Much effort
is put into instructing the students to avoid the sort of meaningless give-and-take
and posturing that often typifies a real session. The proceedings are intended
to be conducted with wisdom, temperance, and prudence, qualities not
always on display in any Parliament: the students in the chamber this morning
tend to emulate the less-than-august example of many Canadian politicians.
The debaters rule of thumb that heckles should be short, witty, and to
the point also applies to the questions asked in Question Period. This
is a difficult skill to master: very few students have a natural ability
to pop an absolute zinger across the chamber.
This is not to say that the students are not generally well-informed. Many
questions come straight from recent headlines, or are clearly inspired
by the provincial Social Studies curriculum. The back-and-forth is quick
and clearly ideological. When, after Question Period, debate moves on to
the Progressive Conservative bill, the MLAs for a day are very well prepared
to ask thoughtful questions. Some platitudes about the importance of economic
growth do arise, but they are generally ignored because they are not meaningful
contributions to the debate.
Each party is anxious to pass its own bill, and the Premier and Government
House Leader are soon shuttling in and out of the chamber to bargain with
representatives of the other parties. The bargaining is exclusively tit-for-tat;
there is little effort to appeal to principle or scruples. If these students
were running the province, the government would almost certainly be in
perpetual minority, for these MLAs are free of any sense that they will
be punished by voters. Some returning students complain that the NDP gets
the short end of the stick every year because of this: since the Progressive
Conservative and Liberal bills have already been dealt with when the NDP
bill arises, those caucuses have a tendency to forget their obligations
to the NDP.
One of the trappings of the Legislature that Model Legislature seeks to
emulate is a page service for passing notes around the Chamber. This year,
the 1st Sherwood Park Rangers and the 4th Sherwood Park Pathfinders have
come to earn a merit badge by performing this important function. The pages
are instructed to read the notes and advise the organizers of notes not
directly related to Parliamentary happenings: U R hot, whats your phone
#? is strictly forbidden, yet it pops up at least once every year.
When lunch time arrives, the Members are ushered down to the Legislature
cafeteria for a quick meal. The chamber is suddenly quiet. Some male participants
retreat to the mens washroom just off the chamber, impressed by the unusual
amenity that is the shoe buffer.
Lunch ends quickly, and the members hustle back to the Chamber. After a
second round of Question Period, debate moves on to the Liberal and New
Democrat bills. In a departure from Parliamentary convention, the party
in government rotates with each sitting. This way, the parties that would
otherwise be in opposition have much more leeway in the content of their
bills: as government, they are free to introduce money bills. Students
also get to approach Question Period from the two perspectives of asking
and answering Opposition inquiries. The intent is to develop an appreciation
of the give-and-take of the Parliamentary process, and the thrill of contributing
to political life. There are probably future leaders in this group, but
all are future citizens who must learn to make respectful, responsible
contributions to the larger community.
For the organizers, it is therefore gratifying to receive feedback from
the students that, for instance, there were open heated debates with heckling,
but [it] stayed orderly. Another student remarks that I enjoyed the obvious
intelligence of all members, but mostly I like the behind the scenes dealing,
the back-room politics! So fun!
The organizing team convenes a short meeting with Kim Shulha, who represents
Bell, which sponsored the event. This is the first year in recent times
that the organizing committee sought sponsorship: rising costs for using
the Legislature and providing lunch brought the cost per student to nearly
$30not including the cost to Calgary students of a bus and hotel rooms.
Bells sponsorship reduced the cost per student to $20, and provided a
modest cash award to the top Parliamentarian and top speakers.
Shortly before the end of the session, the organizing team meets to decide
who shall receive the Premiers Cup, a coveted award given to the student
who best exemplifies the qualities of a Parliamentarian. In a word, what
is sought after is statesmanship: recipients are articulate, passionate,
well-informed speakers who lead and collaborate with both their own caucus
members and those of the other parties. Each caucus also chooses a top
Parliamentarian by secret ballot.
As the ballots are being tallied, royal assent is given to the two bills
that passed, both significantly amended. The organizers joke that they
are disappointed that the NDP did not propose to amend the title of the
Progressive Conservative bill, the CAPITAL Act, to be the DAS KAPITAL Act.
Awards are given out. The Liberal leader received both the Premiers Cup
and her caucus top Parliamentarian award in 2005. The pages, the Speaker,
and the caucus advisors receive standing ovations. As security staff start
to encourage students to depart, many pictures are taken in front of the
throne-like Speakers chair. Some students cant resist the inexorable
draw of sitting in Ralph Kleins chair either. As the students move down
into the Rotunda, and then out the door, they are talking about nothing
Model Legislature has been held now for over thirty years. Many of this
years participants will return for the 2006 Model Legislature, which will
coincide with the one hundredth anniversary of the first sitting of the
Alberta Legislature. The task of governing never ends.