By: James Lambert
Now that the great orange chinook has finally put an end to 44 years of Progressive Conservative dominance, the hard job of governing Alberta has begun in earnest for Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party. Among the many tasks the new MLAs face, one of their first and most important will be to choose a new speaker of the Alberta legislature. Notley’s caucus is filled mostly with newcomers, but that gives her a unique opportunity to reach beyond party lines for an experienced and steady hand to oversee the chamber: Liberal Leader David Swann.
Pundits have already written extensively about the political inexperience of many of the 49 newly-elected NDP MLAs, though this group nevertheless boasts some very impressive talent, from Joe Ceci (a former 15-year Calgary alderman) to Sarah Hoffman (chair of the Edmonton Public School Board) to Bob Wanner (Public Services Commissioner for Medicine Hat). But it’s still fair to point out that the NDP ranks include only four MLAs with experience in the Legislative Assembly (counting Notley herself), and Notley will need all of them to assume top leadership positions in her cabinet.
At the same time, the speaker of the Assembly must possess an intimate knowledge of the rules of the house, which is why the role is usually held by a veteran MLA and would not be appropriately handed to a freshman lawmaker. That poses a problem for Notley, since she’d rather not have to stretch her already thin senior ranks by nominating any of her most seasoned caucus members to serve as speaker.That’s where Swann comes in. After the NDP’s Brian Mason, Swann, who was first elected in 2004 and is now entering his fourth term, is the second-longest serving member of the legislature (along with PC MLA Dave Rodney). Aside from allowing Notley to hang on to her most experienced allies, there are a number of good reasons for the NDP to tap Swann:
- Swann’s 10 years of experience makes him well-qualified for the job, and his long record serving Albertans as a physician and human-rights activist suggests he’d offer a measure of humility and compassion that the legislature sorely needs.
- By going outside her own party, it would signal that Notley is planning a less partisan approach to governance, which would offer a welcome contrast to four decades of polarizing Tory rule.
- At the same time, it would be seen as an inclusive gesture to the province’s many Liberal voters, some of whom—even those who switched allegiances this time—undoubtedly have placed the NDP on probation. Notley’s crew will face a re-election battle sooner or later, and ensuring these voters become (or remain) part of the NDP’s coalition is a key goal.
- Not only would it be a magnanimous gesture on behalf of a longtime MLA who is about to represent his party as a caucus of one, it would place Swann in a neutral role where it would be difficult for him to act as an NDP critic. You can bet that the traditional media is eager to write their first stories about the “left in disarray”; this helps forestall that.
Notley’s NDP has already made history in more ways than one: by becoming the first left-of-center party to win an Alberta election in 85 years; by electing the largest-ever number of women to the legislature; and by ending the longest reign of a political party in Canadian history. During those four decades, the Tories never once picked a speaker from outside of the PC ranks. That means Notley can add to her impressive list of firsts by selecting David Swann. It would be good for the NDP, good for the legislature, and above all, good for the province—and Alberta could certainly stand for that.
James Lambert is an Edmonton-based writer and lawyer by training. He is a contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections, a past political campaign staffer, and currently works in the field of alternative dispute resolution as an adjudicator.