POLITICS

Rookie NDP Medicine Hat MLA Bob Wanner elected Speaker of Alberta legislature

06/11/2015 11:29 EDT | Updated 06/11/2016 05:59 EDT
EDMONTON - The accidental candidate is now the 13th Speaker of the Alberta legislature.

Bob Wanner, the New Democrat MLA for Medicine Hat who replaced another candidate during the election campaign, won a majority of the secret votes of his 86 legislature colleagues Thursday.

He defeated Progressive Conservative member Dave Rodney. Final numbers were not disclosed.

After the 66-year-old rookie MLA won, he was — as per parliamentary tradition — mock-dragged to the Speaker's chair by Premier Rachel Notley and Opposition Wildrose Leader Brian Jean.

The job is historically viewed as a thankless one and therefore requires the winner to be ceremonially persuaded by force to accept it.

"We must find a way of working together and making this great province and its great people a better place than when we found it," Wanner said in his first speech from the canopied mahogany chair.

He replaces Gene Zwozdesky, a Progressive Conservative who lost his seat in the NDP majority election victory last month.

Wanner was expected to win the balloting. Last month, he revealed that the entire NDP caucus, acting on a motion by Notley, had agreed he would be the party's candidate.

The Opposition Wildrose and PC parties didn't like that. They suggested the ad hoc NDP closed-door vote — and Wanner's subsequent public boasting that he would have more access to cabinet ministers — damaged the position's neutrality.

Wanner later made it clear his intent was to rule on issues without fear or favour.

On Thursday, the Wildrose urged three other members of the legislature — Stephanie McLean and Marie Renaud of the NDP and Sandra Jansen of the PCs — to run for Speaker, but they declined.

Wanner's key role will be to steer debate in the legislature, make sure all sides are heard and ensure that parliamentary rules are followed.

But he is also the master of the house and all who work for it, including legal staff, administrators and security. His annual budget is $114 million.

A longtime NDP supporter, Wanner ran for the party in Medicine Hat in the 1993 provincial election but was soundly defeated.

As recently as two months ago, he wasn't planning a return to the political arena.

That changed in the first week of the campaign when Medicine Hat NDP candidate Jason Soklofske quit after being charged with simple assault over a dustup on the doorsteps.

The party asked Wanner to run. He hemmed and hawed, and checked with his family, which includes four daughters and 11 grandchildren.

The tipping point, he said, was a plaintive cellphone call from his 15-year-old granddaughter.

"She says, 'Papa, you must run. We have to change things in the province,'" Wanner recalled in an interview.

"I know it sounds corny, but that really did make me decide."

He was born and raised on a small grain and cattle farm near Weyburn, Sask., and went to school at the University of Saskatchewan.

He eventually moved to Alberta to be a child-welfare worker and probation officer, and ended up in Medicine Hat as a senior administrator responsible for planning and development, parks and roads.

He has recently been working as a mediator.