Chris Pecora

NathanCoopergate

When a Speaker isn’t neutral.

By Graham Thomson

Lost in the controversies and crises involving COVID this year was a scandal involving the Speaker of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, Nathan Cooper. I say scandal, but it could have escalated into a full-blown crisis had Cooper not backed down and apologized for trampling on a cornerstone of our system of parliamentary democracy: the tradition of a non-partisan Speaker.

Cooper had taken the boots to it April 7, 2021, when he, along with 15 other United Conservative Party MLAs, signed an open letter criticizing the government’s reintroduction of pandemic restrictions. “After 13 painstaking months of COVID-19 public health restrictions, we do not support the additional restrictions imposed on Albertans,” read the missive.

The letter itself received wide coverage in the news media, but Cooper’s involvement was pretty much an asterisk to a story understandably focused on a split, if not outright revolt, inside Premier Jason Kenney’s caucus. 

For the first time, a Speaker had added his voice very publicly to a highly partisan and charged controversy.

Even though he’d signed the letter in his capacity as MLA for Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills, there was no escaping the fact Cooper is also the Speaker. This is a big deal. For the first time in the province’s history, a Speaker had added his voice very publicly to a highly partisan and politically charged controversy.

Speakers by tradition and necessity are supposed to be neutral, as they referee political debates during legislative sittings. They typically avoid involvement in political controversies when the Legislature isn’t in session. They have huge responsibilities, power and influence in a job overseeing a $70-million bureaucracy with hundreds of employees, including those who record every word uttered in the assembly for Hansard and staff the legislative library.

The office is rooted in British parliamentary tradition dating back centuries, which is why if you see somebody at the Legislature dressed like an extra from Downton Abbey, odds are they work for the Speaker.

Yet here was Cooper stoking the fires of legislative chaos.

“It is completely wrong,” said David Carter about Cooper’s actions. Carter, who was Alberta’s Speaker from 1986 to 1993, told me he was appalled that Cooper so brazenly undermined the position of Speaker: “It is completely a violation of all things parliamentary in a true democracy as practised in the province of Alberta and Canada.” He called on Cooper to resign.

Kenney didn’t go that far, but five days after the letter appeared, he took Cooper to task verbally: “The long-standing convention, of course, is for speakers to scrupulously maintain their neutrality, and in my 24 years as a parliamentarian I cannot ever recall a Speaker violating that until last week.”

Just hours later, Cooper stood in the assembly to say he had made a mistake: “I apologize to each and every one of you for crossing a line that the speaker ought not cross.”

But why did Cooper, who should have known better, having been Speaker for two years and an MLA for six, cross the line in the first place? “I too am human and a politician who doesn’t get things right every time,” Cooper told me in an interview. “The impartiality of the chair quite rightly was called into question and so I think it was important at that time to apologize.”

Sadly, Cooper is not Alberta’s first Speaker to bend protocols out of shape. During a 44-year domination of provincial politics that ended in 2015, a succession of Progressive Conservative speakers not only overtly sided with the PC government but were apt to treat the rules and traditions like silly putty. In 2010, for example, under the guise of educating MLAs, Speaker Ken Kowalski sent every one of them an academic paper that criticized in all but name the province’s auditor general, Fred Dunn, a thorn in the government’s side. Further undermining Kowalski’s claims to be a non-partisan referee was his practice of attending government caucus meetings. When the Liberals complained, Kowalski cheekily responded he’d be happy to sit in on Liberal caucus meetings too.

Cognizant of history and wanting to appear non-partisan, Cooper says he has never attended a UCP caucus meeting. And he regrets signing the April 2021 letter.

And yet he dropped himself in hot water again last September, when he was on hand for the online unveiling of a “sovereignist” manifesto called the Free Alberta Strategy, an anti-federal-government screed that is also a thinly veiled attack against Kenney for not doing enough to fight Ottawa. Cooper said he attended as an observer because he was curious and because he has attended many events in person (pre-pandemic) and online, including appearing before groups as diverse as Grade 6 social studies classes and Friends of Medicare.

But given his unwise decision to sign the April 7, 2021, letter, Cooper should perhaps tread exceptionally lightly these days if he wants to burnish the image of the Speaker’s office and reclaim his position as an impartial referee. He should stow the clodhoppers and break out the legislative ballet shoes.

Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.

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