By Tim Kalinowski on April 14, 2021.
Two former Speakers of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly say recent actions by current Speaker Nathan Cooper and Deputy Speaker Angela Pitt in signing a partisan letter with other UCP backbenchers opposing the government’s latest public health restrictions should mean they must face a vote of confidence in the legislature.
“It is the most appalling thing that has happened in all of Alberta’s legislative history,” said former Speaker David J. Carter, who served in that role during the Don Getty years from 1986-1993. “Not only did the Speaker, but also the Deputy Speaker, fail to take note of the importance of their positions when they joined that group of 17 who surprisingly as government members really attacked the government. A government of which they are members. And having done that in public. Which is fine except these two individuals, Speaker and Deputy Speaker, had their responsibilities, and thereby compromised their integrity to be able to sit in the chair in that position.”
Carter, a former Calgary MLA who now resides near Eagle Butte in the Cypress Hills, acknowledged the apology from Cooper to the legislature on Monday, but said this violation by a sitting Speaker of the neutrality principle laid out for all Speakers in the Westminster parliamentary system warrants a vote of confidence to ensure Cooper and Pitt still retain the confidence of the House after such a gross misjudgment on their parts.
“The apology (on Monday)– while it is pro forma in many circles– in legislative circles it did not go far enough, in my opinion,” said Carter. “While this statement has been made to the House– it is up to the House to accept it or reject it. So they could bring forth a motion (of confidence), and vote on it if they wish.”
Carter said that is what should happen, but did not know if Premier Jason Kenney, facing a backbench revolt in his own party over the public health restrictions’ issue, would choose to put forth such a confidence motion.
Kenney was publicly critical of Cooper on Monday, saying, “the longstanding convention, of course, is for speakers to scrupulously maintain their neutrality, and in my 24 years as a parliamentarian I cannot ever recall a speaker ever violating that until last week.”
Former Speaker Robert Wanner, who served in that role in the Notley government, said he had written a letter to Cooper urging him to publicly apologize and also to ask for the confidence of the House. Wanner said it saddened him Cooper, whom he knows well, only went half way– offering the apology but not, thus far, seeking the confidence of his peers in an open vote to clear the air on the entire affair.
“This is not a partisan issue,” stated Wanner. “All of the members need to have a degree of certainty they are getting fair treatment on a subject matter. Now on this particular subject matter; it’s a very sensitive, critical, emotional health question that affects all of our province. So if there is a ruling on that order, in any direction, whether it’s to tighten the regulations or loosen the regulations, when you raise a point of order in the legislature you want to be assured the Speaker will be completely transparent, and treat the matter based on the (impartial) traditions and practices of the past.
“By making that declaration in such a public fashion, I think really put that at risk.”
Wanner, who served as MLA for Medicine Hat for four years before choosing not to seek re-election in 2019, acknowledged the shackles of the Speaker’s office can make it challenging to engage in advocacy politics, but anyone agreeing to accept the job has to come to terms with that going in or refuse to let their name stand for election to the Speaker’s chair.
“There are other strategies I employed, and other Speakers employed, that could achieve the representation question as effectively, if not moreso, by not having to sign a (protest) letter with the other UCP MLAs,” stated Wanner.
Wanner believes Cooper’s apology was sincere, but said it just might not be sufficient to restore faith in his ability to impartially conduct his duties as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly.
“I am of the view it would have been another level of correction had he sought and received a vote of confidence from the House,” Wanner said.
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