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Calculating the odds in the race for Alberta's Legislative Speaker

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West Yellowhead PC MLA Robin Campbell

JASPER, Alberta

Just when you thought it was safe to go out of the house again, there's another election!

But you don’t get to vote in this one, even though it’s pretty important to Alberta just the same.

Next on the agenda for the Alberta Legislature: the 87 newly elected MLAs need to elect a Speaker to preside over their … er … deliberations.

Sounds routine, but in a funny inside-baseball way, the Speaker's job is almost as important as the premier's. The Speaker, after all, is the person who gets to set the tone of debate in the Legislature and can go a long way to make it civilized, or hyper-partisan.

The last Speaker, Ken Kowalski, one of the Tory old guard not-so-subtly given a shove in the general direction of the door in Premier Alison Redford's pre-election House cleaning, was a Speaker of the partisan school -- although I am sure he would dispute that assessment.

As befit a guy who was first elected to the Legislature in 1979, he was a consummate insider, someone who still knows where all the bodies are buried. He'll also take home a "transition allowance" of $1.2 million, which will give the Wildrose Party something to talk about in its first week on the job in its unanticipated role as Opposition.

Yesterday, Kowalski could be heard musing on the radio about how the Legislature was certain to go to hell in a handbasket without him and some of the other Tory old-timers there to guide things in the right direction. All I can say about that, Ken, is it's exactly the way I feel about Canadian journalism. You'll just have to get used to the notion nobody is listening.

There seem to be three -- or maybe four -- candidates for the job. They are, in alphabetical order:

- Laurie Blakeman, Liberal MLA for Edmonton-Centre, who has been openly campaigning for the job for weeks if not months.

- Robin Campbell, PC MLA for West Yellowhead, who like Blakeman has been openly asserting his interest for a spell now.

- Wayne Cao, Progressive Conservative MLA for Calgary-Fort and one of the two best singers in the Legislature, who must be included in this list because he is now Deputy Speaker. He may or may not be interested in the job.

- Gene Zwozdesky, PC MLA for Edmonton-Mill Creek and the Mel Torme of provincial politics, the Velvet Fog itself, who is tied with Cao as the Legislature's best crooner.

Nothing is known here about Blakeman's singing voice, but yesterday she sent around an email stating she wants to replace Kowalski. "An unusual choice but not unheard of to have a non-government member serve as Speaker," she wrote. "In part I am doing this to see a return to the role of a non-partisan Speaker. A Speaker attending daily caucus meetings sends a mixed message. As well, it would help to have a Speaker who has served in Opposition and understands the challenges, especially with a combined opposition of 25.

"My eight years of experience as Official Opposition House Leader should serve me well, but mostly I just love parliamentary process," she added.

Blakeman would be a great Speaker, I suspect, but her chances are probably not as good as they might have been if the seat count in the House had been closer after Tuesday. The odds are against her succeeding.

Still, the vote’s theoretically an open one and a candidate without the premier's enthusiastic approval has won before. That victor was Kowalski himself, in 1997, who apparently did not have a fan in then-premier Ralph Klein but nonetheless defeated Klein's choice for the job, Glen Clegg.

I heard Zwozdesky's name come up for the first time in this connection yesterday morning on CBC radio, which in its wisdom hasn't bothered to post an online link. He's apparently campaigning for the job too. As a natural conciliator, someone who knows all the Parliamentary ropes -- the former choir conductor was first elected as a Liberal in 1993 -- Zwozdesky would also make a terrific Speaker.

By the way, Zwozdesky was also a professional Ukrainian dancer for a while, and you have to think that would help in a job like keeping order in the Legislature!

As for Cao (who has a much nicer voice than you'd think from this clip), he's a bit of a dark horse in this race, but he is Deputy Speaker, so he has to be considered. His Wikipedia biography says he was born in North Vietnam but escaped on an American helicopter from the southern city of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. He came to Calgary in 1976 by way of California.

Like Zwozdesky, Cao is a conciliator and has a track record as the deputy in the Speaker's chair. Like Blakeman, however, he's probably a long shot if he's even interested in the job.

Then there's Campbell. The fact I'm writing this in his riding is purely coincidental. He's a former official of the United Mine Workers Union and he was the PC caucus whip under former premier Ed Stelmach. His Wikipedia biography is startlingly uninformative.

Campbell is no dummy. But he's not a warm and fuzzy kind of guy like Zwozdesky or Cao, and if you don't count his once being a "union boss," he doesn’t have oppositional experience like Blakeman. He strikes me as the kind of MLA who would continue Kowalski's partisan approach to being Speaker.

So, this being Alberta, that likely means he has the inside track for the job.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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