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Alberta set to elect first new speaker in 15 years

Premier elect Alison Redford is greeted by her new Progressive Conservative Party caucus at Government House in Edmonton May 2, 2012.

DAN RIEDLHUBER/REUTERS

Alberta's provincial politicians are set to elect a new speaker of the legislature, though some say a once-promising race has shaped up to be a foregone conclusion.

Following the retirement of long-time speaker Ken Kowalski, who served 33 years as an MLA and 15 as speaker, the Progressive Conservative-dominated legislature will elect his replacement Wednesday by secret ballot.

Initially, several candidates were expected to run or expressed interest, including former deputy speaker Wayne Cao, his fellow PC MLA Mary Anne Jablonski and long-time PC cabinet minister Gene Zwozdesky, who Premier Alison Redford has twice excluded from cabinet since becoming party leader.

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Joining the race from across the floor was Liberal Laurie Blakeman, a long-time MLA and house leader from central Edmonton.

If opposition members all rallied around Ms. Blakeman, several PC candidates might have split the vote and opened the door for a non-Tory. But many now expect some candidates won't run, and that the PCs will rally behind Mr. Zwozdesky.

Ms. Blakeman was confident in her abilities, though not about her chances.

"I'm not holding my breath," she said Tuesday night. "If this is about ability, skill set, and experience – it's mine." She went on to add that "if it's Zwozdesky, it's another signal it's same-old, same-old" under Ms. Redford.

The speaker is meant to be non-partisan, controlling procedures in the legislature and settling disputes.

Mr. Zwozdesky says he wasn't taking anything for granted, despite being considered by many to be the frontrunner.

"If the members give me their vote, I would be happy to serve them. I go into every election cautiously optimistic," Mr. Zwozdesky said Wednesday morning, adding: "How I feel and how the members feel I would hope are parallel feelings."

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The caveat in Wednesday's vote, however, is the inherent unpredictability of the process: any MLA can nominate any other MLA when procedures begin just after 1:30 p.m. local time. If the nomination is accepted, that candidate is on the ballot. And, since it's a secret ballot, it may be more difficult for parties to command their MLAs to vote a certain way.

"It's a question of what happens live on the floor," Mr. Zwozdesky said. A candidate needs 50 per cent of votes to win. If several people run and there's no majority winner, a second vote is held.

Ms. Jablonski, a PC MLA from the central Alberta city of Red Deer, said she considered running, but won't.

"I have decided to not accept the nomination. I think we have some good candidates that are putting their names forward," she said, adding she expects the PCs will rally around their own candidate – not Ms. Blakeman, the Liberal – to control a "very spirited chamber," one including a large opposition, led by the Wildrose Party.

"I think we recognize Laurie has some strengths, but I think we also understand it's important for us to have a PC speaker," Ms. Jablonski said.

The winner is expected to be dragged to the speaker's chair by the premier and official opposition leader, a tradition dating back to early days of Parliament, when speakers risked death for communicating the house's wishes to the monarchy.

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The Alberta MLAs will also elect a deputy speaker and chair of committees. A throne speech is scheduled for Thursday, with the house resuming a brief session on Monday. The entire session is expected to last just a few days and is largely a formality to elect a new speaker, with only one bill expected to be tabled.

Under new pay rules recommended earlier this year, a speaker is paid the same bonus as a cabinet minister – $67,000 annually, for a total salary of just over $200,000.

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