Ken Kowalski, the Speaker of the Alberta Legislature, has a reputation as the sly old fox of Alberta politics.
But the celebrated Mr. K seems to have been outfoxed by the far-right Wildrose Alliance, at least for the moment.
In his role as Speaker of the House, the Honorable Member for Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock has quite properly admonished the right-wing Wildrose Alliance for using the taxpayer financed budget provided for its elected members to boost the political fortunes of its unelected leader.
Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith worked herself into a carefully orchestrated swivet last week when the Clerk of the Legislature fired off an epistle instructing the Alliance caucus to stop quoting Smith in its official caucus news releases -- which are paid for by taxpayers.
Now, Smith could have had a seat in the Legislature if she'd been brave enough to run in the Calgary-Glenmore by-election last fall. However, when she didn't read the political entrails right, she let low-key former leader Paul Hinman run instead. Presumably, she ground her teeth in frustration when he turned out to be a winner.
Since then, the three-and-a-half member Alliance caucus in the Legislature has been firing off press releases like machine gun bullets, shamelessly quoting Smith on every topic under the sun. When they did this, they must have known it would run afoul of a Speaker known to slap down Liberal and NDP MLAs guilty of going so far as to put a party logo on a publicly financed napkin or write news releases deemed "too red."
The Wildrose Alliance, by the way, actually has a three-member caucus in the Legislature. In addition, another member, Independent Fort McMurray MLA Guy Boutilier, calls himself an Independent Wildrose member. So the mainstream media -- presumably in hopes of advancing the cause of the far-right Alliance -- calls it a four-member caucus. OK, let's split the difference and be done with it.
Anyway, pretty clearly, Kowalski had on his side both the rules of the House and the precedent of how he has treated other parties with Legislative caucuses when the Clerk fired off the infamous letter.
But just as clearly, he's losing the propaganda war to Smith.
When Smith screams, the media listens. So media coverage to date has made it look as if the Speaker is being partisan, unreasonable and acting without any justification whatsoever in "censoring" the Wildrose leader's daily bloviations.
It's a bit like the federal coalition crisis of 2008, when the public was persuaded that a coalition of democratically elected Members of Parliament completely within the Westminster tradition would somehow be undemocratic, while preventing MPs from exercising their right to vote confidence in the government was a profound expression of democracy.
So we saw today, for example, the Calgary Herald ginning up a campaign to have former Conservative speakers, who may have their own political agendas, vilifying Kowalski for "abuse of power," "going over the line," and "making up the rules as he goes along," claims that are not backed up in the story.
As a result of her favourable press clippings, Smith's accusations seem to have steadily gained traction with the public while the Speaker has maintained a steely silence.
Just remember, though, Kowalski hasn't been a member of the House for more than 30 years for nothing. There's a large new hospital in the tiny town of Westlock and the headquarters of the Education Department's Alberta Distance Learning Centre in similarly smallish Barrhead to show for it, not to mention a Conservative MP in Ottawa who used to be his executive assistant.
And long ago, after Kowalski had served in several important cabinet posts, then-premier Ralph Klein tried to edge him out the door. Kowalski resurfaced in no time -- chosen by his fellow MLAs as the powerful Speaker of the House, a role in which he was delighted to be an occasional thorn in Klein's side.
So don't rule out the possibility that the former schoolteacher from Barrhead may yet have a lesson or two to teach Smith.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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