Alberta Speaker Ken Kowalski

As Alberta Speaker Ken Kowalski might say after a particularly spirited rendition of the national anthem by occupants of the legislative galleries, “Well, now!”

The Internet is abuzz with predictions that Kowalski, after three decades and two years as a Conservative MLA, nine consecutive terms in all, is about to retire from politics.

If this is true, one of the seemingly eternal verities of Alberta politics will have at last come to an end. Kowalski, after all, is one of the great characters of the Alberta political scene. Once the deputy premier, he apparently fell into disfavour with premier Ralph Klein in the mid-1990s. At any rate, he disappeared from cabinet. But it was not long before he reinvented himself and persuaded the House to elect him Speaker in 1997.

Now Kowalski appears both to be unbeatable in his own riding if he chooses to stay and entitled to enjoy his retirement if he decides to go. Enjoyable his retirement should be, seeing as a year ago he was reported to be in line for a comfortable payout of close to $1.3-million from the people of Alberta.

The rumour about Kowalski’s looming departure seems to have been spread by Joan Crockatt, a former journalist of a conservative turn of mind who nowadays, according to her online biography, “serves as a media consultant specializing in strategic communications.” Crockatt is also an ardent Tweeter, and of late several of her Tweets have chirped cheerfully about the possibility Kowalski will soon hit the road.

Various other Daves in the blogosphere have picked up this storyline, with Dave Heyman of the blog commenting that Kowalski’s departure “throws wide open” the race in the Speaker’s Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock riding northwest of Edmonton. Heyman added that the Wildrose Alliance candidate in that riding is Link Byfield.

However, Dave Cournoyer over at the blog contributed a note of caution to Heyman’s analysis by noting that Heyman himself has taken of late to advising Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith on her political plans. This factoid is newsworthy on its own, as Cournoyer pointed out, since Heyman has also spent spells acting as a media spokesthingy for such well-placed Tories as Premier Ed Stelmach and Energy Minister Ron Liepert, not to mention helping out with the Calgary mayoral campaign of Liberal MLA Kent Hehr.

It is perhaps worthy of note at this point that the trio of Heyman, Crockatt and Smith worked together as journalists at the Calgary Herald during that newspaper’s unfortunate labour dispute in 1999 and 2000. (In the interests of full disclosure, the author of this blog post was walking a picket line outside the same building at that particular moment in history.)

The point of mentioning this, of course, is that while it may very well be that Kowalski is contemplating retirement, it is also likely quite possible that the Wildrose Alliance and supporters of its neo-conservative nostrums — whomever they might be — would very much like you to think that Byfield has a credible chance of winning in Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock.

Anything is possible, one supposes, but as noted here recently, Byfield, scion of the now-vanished far-right Alberta Report publishing empire founded by his father Ted, may be fairly described as a somewhat eccentric candidate. A founder and participant in such oddball Astroturf organizations as the Society to Explore and Record Christian History and the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, which exists to resist the “expanding influence” of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or so says the Wikipedia, Byfield is probably best known as Alberta’s still-waiting Senator in Waiting.

Indeed, in the event Kowalski chooses to depart, much more likely than Link Byfield, MLA, is that some local Conservative grandee with access to the Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock riding association’s quarter-million-dollar war chest will come forward and sweep to victory on Kowalski’s coattails.

The name of Lloyd Bertschi, Mayor of Morinville, the largest community in the riding, and former president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, springs to mind in this context.

Regardless, whether or not Kowalski decides to retire remains to be seen. While he has clearly relished the position as Speaker over the years, what he concludes is likely to happen in the next general election will surely play a key role in his decision-making.

He has put his boot upon members of all parties in the legislature at times, and more than a few would be happy to see him go. Moreover, if the Conservatives were to lose a significant number of seats to the Wildrose Alliance in the next election, the party could well be disinclined to see one of their own serve as Speaker.

In such circumstances, Kowalski would lose his not insubstantial power and be thoroughly marginalized by those in his own party who have been displeased by his rulings in the past. Facing that possibility, pulling the plug and retiring might not seem like an unrealistic option.

As is so often the case in the legislature, we must await Kowalski’s ruling.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...