Many Albertans now know Ken Kowalski from his higher duty as the long-sitting Speaker of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, a position he has held since 1997. The MLA for Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock announced this week that he will seek election for the tenth time since 1979. His long political career has demonstrated a kind of political longevity and stamina that not many Alberta politicians can claim to have.
Mr. Kowalski is the only Tory MLA to have served under all four of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Premiers. He has also filled a wide range of cabinet posts since he was first elected 32 years ago (Environment, Career Development, Public Works, Economic Development and Tourism, and as Deputy Premier). Immediately before entering elected politics, he served as executive assistant to cabinet minister Hugh Horner (father of current PC leadership candidate Doug Horner), who he later replaced as MLA for Barrhead in a closely fought 1979 by-election.
Mr. Kowalski was one of the key players in making Ralph Klein Premier in 1992. Mr. Kowalski and a cadre of rural MLAs mobilized rural Alberta Tories to vote for Mr. Klein on the second ballot of the 1992 PC leadership contest after Nancy Betkowski placed first by one vote on the first ballot.
“People tell me there’s an arrogant look about me. That’s something I was born with; I cannot change that.” – Kowalski in 1993 (Edmonton Journal).
In the first few years of Premier Klein’s administration, Mr. Kowalski served in a powerhouse role as Deputy Premier and unofficially as the “Minister of Everything.” The power doled out by Mr. Kowalski, and the rewards he lavished on his constituency, led some Opposition politicians to claim that he was actually running the government, with the Premier only as a figurehead. That changed in 1994 when Mr. Kowalski’s career took a very different direction.
On October 21, 1994, political watchers were stunned when Mr. Kowalski was shuffled out of Premier Klein’s cabinet and announced that he would resign as an MLA to become chairman of (now defunct) Alberta Utilities and Energy Board. The shuffle was seen as a stunning demotion for Premier Klein’s most powerful cabinet minister.
On October 23, 1994 Ethics Commissioner Bob Clark told reporters that he would investigate Mr. Kowalski’s appointment. Three days later, Mr. Kowalski told the media that he would not accept the new job unless the Ethics Commissioner agreed.
On October 28, 1994 Premier Klein told the media that he had axed the appointment as a result of public pressure from the oil industry and environmental groups who claimed the posting would politicize the regulatory board. Mr. Kowalski was infuriated, claiming that the government was being run by “three stooges” and demanded an opportunity to address the PC caucus with his complaints.
“The blood hasn’t dried yet from the first sabre wound and I’ve got a second one.” – Ken Kowalski, 1994 (Calgary Herald)
Emerging from his meeting with the PC caucus on October 31, 1994, Mr. Kowalski told the media that he was never angry and that he “loved Ralph Klein.”
It was later ruled that both Premier Klein and Mr. Kowalski could have received $20,000 in fines for violating a six-month cooling-off period under Alberta’s Conflicts of Interest Act.
For the next few years, Mr. Kowalski languished in the Tory backbenches, emerging to criticize Premier Klein and his cabinet ministers ever so often (even once accusing them of “`misleading the public pretty dramatically about cuts to his former Ministry of Economic Development and Trade). The Calgary Herald labelled him as the “loose cannon” of the Tory caucus in 1996 when he revealed that Premier Klein’s Chief of Staff Rod Love had offered him a job with Multi-Corp (a company that Mr. Love, Klein’s wife Colleen, and a number of other associates owned shares in).
Mr. Kowalski’s time on the backbenches ended in April 1997, when he won a surprise victory against Dunvegan MLA Glen Clegg to become Speaker of the Legislative Assembly (it was suspected that he also had the support of the 18 Liberal MLAs and two NDP MLAs in the Assembly).
Love him or hate him, call him old fashioned or blatantly partisan, but Speaker Kowalski stands today as Alberta’s longest current serving MLA. As a political survivor against political odds that should have seen him crushed, he remains standing as the Progressive Conservatives prepare to celebrate forty years as government in September.