Ray Speaker

It was almost 26 years ago that Ray Speaker, Minister of Municipal Affairs in the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Don Getty, rose in the Legislature in Edmonton in response to a member’s question about a story that had appeared the morning before in the Calgary Herald.

The story had appeared on the front page of the Calgary Herald and said, in effect, that the PC government of the day had robbed Peter to pay Paul to build low-income housing in big cities. Or, more to the point, that it had robbed one group of people in need of a hand up to help another group in a similar situation and then put out a misleading press release implying it was spending new money.

The question in the Legislature was posed by Ed Ewasiuk, New Democrat MLA for Edmonton-Beverly, an aggressive advocate for the rights of the poor and working people.

“Yesterday the minister and his colleagues announced that they’ve finally started initiatives to provide housing in the inner cities,” Ewasiuk, who died in 2006, said by way of introduction. “Behind the cautious optimism of housing advocates is the serious concern that the commitment to housing is only a shell game. While the minister was able to find $15 million for inner-city housing, he did so by robbing $14 million from the rural and native housing program of his department.”

Ewasiuk concluded by asking: “How can the minister say that social housing is a priority for this government when it has cut from one needy group to help another?”

Mr. Speaker (the minister, that is, not the Speaker of the Legislature) rose to his full height — an impressive sight, as he was not a short man — adjusted the button on his suit coat, and responded, more in sadness than in anger as I recall.

“One or two days ago I raised the fact that often my research in this Legislature when I sat on that side of the House was from the daily papers,” Speaker said. ‘Often I found even as a member of the Opposition that that research was based on false information and I was misled in the House. We find that here again today…”

“I want to make it very clear,” he went on after a mild dig at ‘our learned colleagues that sit in the upper gallery,’ a sly suggestion that those who toiled for what was still known in those days as The Press might not be all that learned, “that the article that was written by Mr. David Climenhaga of the Calgary Herald has more than one inaccuracy, and it is my intent to address those by direct letter to the author.”

Speaker continued at length, but the gist of his answer was that the government had merely drafted a sensible priority list and it was from that list that necessary funding decisions were made. “There was not a loss of the dollars, just a proper priority reallocation, and I think that should be clear in this Legislature,” he concluded. That was pretty much the end of the story.

But the punch line to this tale is that I never received that direct letter. Indeed, I strongly suspect there never was a letter. And there never was a letter, of course, because the story did not contain any inaccuracies.

And what a perfect way to illustrate how those old-time Tories ran the government! When pressed, just say whatever pops into your head, and don’t worry too much about the follow-up. Why bother, this is Alberta, you’re Tories, and no one is likely to catch you.

I mention this because the name of Speaker, who was a Social Credit MLA for Little Bow before he represented the same riding as a Tory and later was a Reform Party MP for Lethbridge, cropped up on a list yesterday of 50 former PC MLAs who have pledged their votes to Jason Kenney in next spring’s leadership vote in Calgary. Speaker will be 81 next month.

In addition to other former high-profile cabinet ministers like Steve West, the man handed the job of dismantling public services by premier Ralph Klein, and market fundamentalist ideologue Ted Morton, the worst premier Alberta never had, others on the list included an MLA accused of taking a bribe, another forced to repay the cost of taking a relative on a government-paid trip abroad, another accused of vandalizing his own election signs, one accused of not paying his taxes, and many fine public servants who sat in flawless silence deep in the Tory back benches.

My thought about these old fellows was much the same as that of former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who told the CBC: “I’m finding it very surprising that Jason Kenney would be using those individuals as his main backers and flaunting them. Those are the kind of individuals that, in 2016, you should be hiding as your backers and not being proud of.”

“You could never be conservative enough for those individuals,” Lukaszuk added. “Later on they became the first supporters of the Wildrose.”

But that may not matter much to Kenney. What matters is that because they are former MLAs, they can vote, and their votes may be enough to push him to the first-ballot victory he needs for his plan to turn Alberta hard to the right.

As for that letter from Speaker, maybe it was sent, and just got lost in the mail for a quarter century. Maybe.

If it shows up, of course, and I stand corrected, I will print a retraction on behalf of the Herald right here on Rabble.ca. And that’s a PC promise!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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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...