POLITICS

Alberta legislature members set to pick new Speaker of the house on Thursday

06/10/2015 03:42 EDT | Updated 06/10/2016 05:59 EDT
EDMONTON - Alberta's outgoing legislature Speaker Gene Zwozdesky says his successor will have one of the most paradoxically involved and disconnected jobs in parliamentary democracy.

"The Speaker's job was certainly among the best jobs (I had), but it's also the loneliest job that you could ever imagine," Zwozdesky said Wednesday as he sat in his third-floor legislature office, surrounded by cardboard boxes, bubble wrap and picture hooks on empty walls.

"You do not do anything political when the house is in session, and you don't do any political fundraising or attend political fundraisers for others," he said.

"That cuts you off from your colleagues, many of whom are friends over the years."

All MLAs are to convene in the legislature chamber Thursday to select a new Speaker.

It's a secret ballot to reflect the impartiality of the job, but the majority NDP caucus has already signalled it will endorse its Medicine Hat MLA Bob Wanner.

No other caucus has endorsed another candidate. The winner needs a simple majority of votes.

Zwozdesky, a longtime Tory cabinet minister, was defeated in the May 5 election, ending three year's of service as Alberta's 12th Speaker.

The job has been described as the referee for debate in the house, but it's a lot more.

With a $114-million annual budget, the Speaker is boss of the legislature building and the 200 people who work there, keeping it at a firewall's distance from the partisan clash of ideologies that drive the machinery of public policy.

The Speaker administers office space, handles security and is responsible for non-partisan MLA constituency offices scattered throughout the province.

The Speaker receives dignitaries and casts a ballot to break any tie votes.

But the spotlight remains on his or her's duties as referee, clad in the traditional tricorne hat and black robes, sitting in the tall, ornate canopied mahogany chair at the far end of the chamber.

Zwozdesky took over in 2012 during one of the most turbulent periods in the legislature. Opposition parties were attacking a Tory government lurching from one scandal to another under former premier Alison Redford.

The debates became heated with four-letter words, personal insults and accusations of corruption.

Zwozdesky set the tone early that parliamentary debate — while unbridled — should err on the side of civility. Opposition politicians argued back that healthy debate, to remain healthy, needed to allow for occasional unseemliness.

Zwozdesky said he has no regrets and noted that precedents he set bind those who follow him.

"If something goes wrong in the legislative assembly, you alone as Speaker are responsible, so you must never allow it to reach a chaotic state."

The Speaker selection begins the first formal session of the new NDP government under Premier Rachel Notley.

On Friday, Lois Mitchell is to be sworn in at the legislature as the new lieutenant governor replacing Don Ethell.

On Monday, Mitchell will read a throne speech outlining the government's priorities in what is expected to be a short legislature session.