POLITICS

Gene Zwozdesky Chosen As Speaker Of The Alberta Legislature

05/23/2012 12:12 EDT | Updated 07/23/2012 05:12 EDT
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EDMONTON - Gene Zwozdesky — former cabinet minister, music conductor and Ukrainian dancer — was literally dragged to his chair Wednesday to become the new Speaker of the Alberta legislature.

The 63-year-old Progressive Conservative MLA won the majority of votes cast by all MLAs in secret balloting on the floor of the chamber.

The only other candidate was Liberal house leader Laurie Blakeman.

As per parliamentary tradition, Zwozdesky was then mock-dragged by Premier Alison Redford and Opposition Wildrose party Leader Danielle Smith from his caucus seat to the ornate mahogany throne at the south end of the chamber.

He put up particularly fierce "resistance" as Redford, at one elbow, and Smith, on the other, hauled him up the final few steps to the Speaker's chair while the other MLAs laughed and cheered.

"I'm both humbled and privileged by your support," Zwozdesky told the house.

"I will do my very utmost to ensure we maintain that level of support in the assembly."

He said his priorities as Speaker will be to remain impartial, raise the profile of both his post and that of the assembly, and to "maintain and, where possible, improve the civility and decorum in this house that we all know, love, and respect."

Civility and decorum were at low ebb at times in the March legislature session as all parties fought for attention in the run-up to the bitterly contested April 23 general election, which was won by Redford's Tories.

Eighty-six members voted Wednesday — Education Minister Jeff Johnson was absent. The exact totals were not announced. There was one spoiled ballot.

The mock-dragging ceremony is a parliamentary tradition symbolizing the inherent danger of the job, dating back to the violent deaths of Speakers in England in the 1400s and 1500s.

Those deaths, ironically, were unrelated to the job itself but occurred during the War of the Roses.

Zwozdesky's new job will be to oversee the activities of the legislature assembly, keeping order during debates and question period, and making sure the rules and precedents are followed.

He steps into a role replete with tradition and ceremony. Every day when the house sits, he will enter the chamber dressed in a tricorne hat and black gown, the focus of a slow-moving procession of chamber officials.

He is the first new Speaker in the legislature in 15 years. Former Speaker Ken Kowalski retired and didn't run in last month's election.

Blakeman knew going in that it would be tough to defeat Zwozdesky as tradition usually sees the Speaker's job go to a member of the governing caucus.

The job is a new chapter for Zwozdesky, a Saskatchewan-born man who came late to politics at 44.

In public life, he has shown himself to be a man who can bruise and get bruised.

Zwozdesky was born July 24, 1948, in Nipawin, but moved to Alberta at age two.

His family lived in smaller centres — Grand Centre, Hinton and Sangudo — before settling for good in the capital city when young Gene was just 15.

He eventually studied at the University of Alberta, earning degrees in arts and education. But his first love was music, teaching it at Victoria Composite high school in Edmonton.

At 15 he joined the famed Ukrainian Shumka Dancers troupe.

He danced for six years, until he injured his back doing the splits at age 21. His dancing career was over, so he launched into the next one.

For the next quarter century, Zwozdesky was the musical director for the troupe, writing, arranging and conducting the notes that helped the dancing come alive.

"What we have in Shumka is the perfect marriage between music and choreography," he told an interviewer in 1989. "What I do is give it musical paint. My brushes are the instrument of that orchestra."

In the early 1990s, Zwozdesky was ready to try politics.

He was intrigued by the strict fiscal conservatism of then-opposition Liberal leader Laurence Decore. In 1993, he ran and won for the Liberals in the working-class south-central riding known then as Edmonton-Avonmore.

He has kept on winning through five subsequent elections in what is now known as Edmonton-Mill Creek.

He was a bulldog finance critic for the Liberals, but when ex-Tory Nancy MacBeth took over the party reins in 1998, Zwozdesky's days were numbered.

He believed in balancing the books first, don't spend more than you earn.

MacBeth, however, was preaching more spending, perhaps deficit budgets and higher taxes. He couldn't abide and by the summer of 1998, according to MacBeth, he quit. According to Zwozdesky, he was pushed.

A month later he had found a new home with then premier Ralph Klein's Tories and has been there ever since.

He rose quickly up the ladder in the Tory caucus, known as a man with a boundless capacity for work, the man who wanted to know everything, learn it all.

Aides recall how he would work a room, sitting in front of citizens and experts alike for hours, zeroing in, eyes locked, preferring to drink in ideas like water blasted from a fire hose.

He began as minister for community development, then education, then, in 2006, he decided to back the wrong horse in the race for the next party leader to replace Klein, and suddenly found himself on the outside looking in.

Ed Stelmach seemed like a perfect fit for Gene Zwozdesky's support: both were Edmonton-area cabinet ministers under Klein, proud flame-keepers of Ukrainian heritage.

But Zwozdesky instead joined the wave of cabinet ministers backing Calgary's favourite son, Jim Dinning. And when Dinning and rival Ted Morton cancelled each other out, Zwozdesky stood disbelieving at the leadership convention as the crowd chanted "Ed, Ed, Ed!" and Stelmach came up the middle to win.

"I would have backed (Stelmach) if he'd asked me to," Zwozdesky told a reporter seconds after the victory was announced.

Kicked to the backbenches, Zwozdesky slowly began moving back up the ladder, first as an associate minister for cities and then to the key post of Health Minister.

It was in Health that the man who liked his water from a fire hose got all he could drink, and more.

It is the biggest department in government, a sprawling multibillion-dollar operation, with issues that could take a minister off in a hundred different directions, not to mention daily assaults from the media and partisan critics.

There was much to fix. Health-care wait times were going through the roof, with patients languishing for hours in pain to get help in swamped emergency wards.

There was widespread confusion as all the administration was being collapsed pell-mell into one provincewide superboard.

Bureaucrats, according to a recent damning report by the Health Quality Council, used the confusion to launch turf wars. Doctors who complained of poor patient care were told to keep quiet, stripped of privileges and even forced out.

Matters came to a head late in 2010, when Stephen Duckett, the man in charge of service delivery for the arm's-length Alberta Health Services, passively-aggressively teed off on reporters by refusing to answer questions on the care crisis because he was busy eating a cookie.

Critics called it Duckett's Marie Antoinette moment. For Zwozdesky it was the last straw: a system failing, patients suffering, and the face of the front-line system content to contemptuously nibble on a biscuit.

After what then AHS chairman (now Energy Minister) Ken Hughes called "clear direction" from Zwozdesky, the AHS parted ways with Duckett.

Opposition critics said Zwozdesky was out of line, leaving Duckett to run an arm's-length delivery agency only to then meddle in hiring and firing at the highest levels.

Zwozdesky was unrepentant: "The board operates at an arm's-length fashion, but they are responsible to me as the minister," he said at the time. "And as the minister I take that responsibility very seriously."

With his new job he has now come full circle, back to his days at the head of the class. Only this time there are 86 charges in the room.

And, as history has shown, they don't play well together.

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