Stelmach defends Speaker Ken Kowalski on accusations of bias

CALGARY — Alberta’s opposition leader says the Speaker of the legislature is showing partisan bias and should shape up or step down.

CALGARY — Alberta’s opposition leader says the Speaker of the legislature is showing partisan bias and should shape up or step down.

Ken Kowalski, a veteran politician and an elected member of the governing Progressive Conservatives, was originally deemed to be a good fit in a job akin to the role of a referee — keeping order during question period and other debates in the often raucous provincial legislature.

But provincial Liberal leader David Swann says that has changed.

“I think he needs to rethink where he’s going in terms of his role as an independent … supposedly independent … but clearly a partisan Speaker,” said Swann.

“He is demonstrating his lack of objectivity in some of these areas and if he’s not prepared to rethink some of his rigidity around some of these issues, he should be considering stepping down.”

The emergence of the Wildrose Alliance as a political challenger to the Conservatives appears to have brought problems to a head.

The Alliance recently accused the Speaker and his party of trying to muzzle it by saying it couldn’t quote its unelected leader in caucus news releases or on caucus websites. The legislature clerk’s office reasoned that Danielle Smith’s name could not be used in official legislative communications because she is not an elected member. The party responded by asking that the warning be removed.

“When the government starts interfering with what the opposition can or cannot put in their press releases, it crosses the line,” Smith told The Canadian Press a couple of weeks ago.

“It doesn’t make sense and we’ve indicated we’re not going to comply with it and we’ve asked the Speaker to withdraw the letter.”

An official in the Speaker’s office said there were clear rules governing how members of the legislature and caucuses may spend money.

The controversy prompted former Conservative speakers David Carter and Stan Schumacher to weigh in, saying Kowalski is undermining the position by acting in a manner both partisan and undemocratic.

Premier Ed Stelmach told reporters Thursday that the Speaker treats everyone the same.

“As a caucus we’ve had our fingers rapped. There are very strict rules with respect to using public funds and there is a delineation between what funds are used in terms of taxpayer funds for communications.

“If they are party (communications), then they have to be paid by the party,” said Stelmach. “And if it’s government, then it’s paid for by the taxpayer.”

Stelmach said it wasn’t long ago that the deputy premier — a Conservative — had talked about the (electoral) boundary issue and used government letterhead to put forward his party’s suggestions on changes.

“He apologized immediately after that,” said Stelmach. “So we all had the Speaker come down with rules and decisions, but rules are rules. Everybody has to play by the rules.”

Swann agreed that this was one example involving the Tories, but said there are plenty more when it comes to the opposition.

“I don’t think you can defend what we have seen in the opposition (in terms of) partisan decisions and unequal application of the rules, and we heard that from some pretty independent Speakers,” he said.

“You can’t dismiss this.”

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