Outrage over a lucrative lawsuit given by Alberta’s government to a firm with close ties to the Premier reached a boiling point Monday, with opposition members storming out of Question Period and calling the Speaker a “shill.”
The storm began last week, when CBC reported Alison Redford chose a consortium of law firms that included that of her political ally and ex-husband, Robert Hawkes, to represent the province in a $10-billion lawsuit with tobacco companies over health-care costs.
Ms. Redford picked the firm in 2010 when she was justice minister, documents show, but the deal was finalized by her successor.
The opposition raised a point of privilege Thursday, arguing Ms. Redford misled the house by saying she wasn’t the minister who made the decision. Question Period began before Speaker Gene Zwozdesky ruled on that point of privilege, leading him to ban any question remotely related to tobacco.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith stormed out with most of her caucus, saying the Speaker was shielding the government with an overly loose interpretation.
“If he’s going to make a mockery of Question Period, then what other recourse do we have? And I think he made a mockery of Question Period,” Ms. Smith said.
Attacks between parties during Question Period are commonplace, but attacking the Speaker and walking out are tactics seldom used. Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk fired back, saying Wildrose is damaging the reputation of Mr. Zwozdesky, a PC MLA, former cabinet minister and one-time Liberal who was elected Speaker this year.
“That is a very serious allegation to make against a Speaker. And I guess it’s a very easy one to make,” Mr. Lukaszuk told reporters, saying questions about the $10-billion lawsuit pale to that of health care and education. “Albertans are not being well-served by this kind of discourse, this kind of behaviour.”
It wasn’t just Wildrose. NDP Leader Brian Mason said Mr. Zwozdesky’s intent was “blatant,” while Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said he didn’t blame Wildrose for walking out. “The Speaker has been interfering quite a bit,” Dr. Sherman said.
An hour after Wildrose stormed out, Mr. Zwozdesky ruled on the point of privilege, siding with Ms. Redford – saying she didn’t mislead the house because the final decision wasn’t hers, though the initial one was. Wildrose MLA Gary Bikman then scrawled “shill” on the back of a bill and held it up in the legislature.
Opposition parties have called for an inquiry into the tendering of the tobacco lawsuit contract, and called on the Ethics Commissioner to investigate.
Amid the uproar, the Tories also signalled they’d invoke time allocation to limit debate on their final unpassed bill, one making minor changes to Alberta’s weak election financing laws, meaning the inflammatory legislative session could adjourn as soon as Tuesday night.