Alberta Politics
Nathan Cooper, Speaker of the Alberta Legislature (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Speaker Nathan Cooper’s signature on dissident MLAs’ COVID complaint an error of judgment, not quite a firing offence

Posted on April 09, 2021, 2:37 am
7 mins

Nathan Cooper, Speaker of the Alberta Legislature, sailed very close to the wind when he lent his name to a letter signed by a group of dissident United Conservative Party MLAs opposed to the province’s latest COVID-19 restrictions. 

While the position taken by the 18 rebel Conservative MLAs is repugnant and will inevitably encourage spread of the coronavirus, it is less clear whether Mr. Cooper, MLA for Olds-Didsbury, crossed the line into open partisanship and should therefore resign from his important and high-profile job as the presiding officer of the Alberta Legislature. 

Michel Bissonnet, Speaker of the Quebec National Assembly from 2003 to 2008 (Photo: Originator not identified).

This is a topic for legitimate debate. 

There are not a lot of guidelines for how far Speakers in Westminster-style legislatures should dip their toes into the waters of partisanship. Practices vary in different places, including among Canadian legislatures. 

By tradition, the Speaker of what we used to call the Mother of Parliaments in Westminster, renounces all party affiliations. 

When a British Speaker runs for re-election, he or she runs as Speaker. British voters seem to have respected this tradition of scrupulous impartiality that extends beyond the chambers of Parliament. 

Taking the impartiality of the chair to this extent has never caught on in Canada, undoubtedly for practical reasons. At this point in Canadian history, it would almost certainly amount to a formula for political suicide by the Speaker. 

“The Speaker has almost always been elected from among the Members of the governing party, and although the Speaker eschews partisan political activity, he or she does not make a complete break,” says the 2009 edition of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice. “When running for re-election, incumbent Speakers are usually careful to avoid partisan statements that might prejudice their perceived impartiality in the future.”

Said Michel Bissonnet, President of the Quebec National Assembly in 2004: “In Canada … in order to guarantee absolute impartiality, the convention is that Speakers renounce all official ties with their party. They do not take part in party meetings or in any partisan political activities.”

Peter Milliken, Speaker of the House of Commons from 2001 to 2011 (Photo: Bruce MacRae, Creative Commons).

By this measure, Mr. Cooper went too far. 

“Presiding officers must be extremely careful in what they do,” Mr. Bissonnet explained in remarks recorded in the Summer 2004 edition of the Canadian Parliamentary Review. “We must always act with dignity and in a non-partisan manner in order to preserve the office’s impartiality and credibility with all colleagues.”

He noted that, in Quebec at least, this rule does not apply to Deputy Speakers, who may fill in as the chairperson of a Parliamentary session, but on whose shoulders the dignity of the office and the entire Legislature does not rest. 

Peter Milliken, Speaker of the House of Commons in those days, said in the same edition of the Review that “when I attend partisan meetings in Kingston (and the Islands, his riding), I do not make speeches denouncing the other parties, or in fact talk about politics.”

This would seem to be normal practice for Speakers at most times in most Canadian provinces. 

However, Ken Kowalski, Speaker of the Alberta Legislature at the time, described a different approach. “I am elected with a political party. I attend partisan events in and out of my riding.”

Ken Kowalski, Speaker of the Alberta Legislature from 1997 to 2012 (Photo: Public Domain).

But then, as Mr. Kowalski pointed out, the Alberta Legislature was a very different place in those days than the House of Commons or the legislature of Quebec, let alone the Alberta Legislature today, which thanks to the success of the NDP in 2015 has moved much closer to the Canadian norm for political competitiveness. 

“In Alberta, 74 of the 83 members belong to the majority party,” he explained. “The most difficult group to deal with is the government, the majority party, because the expectation is that you are still theirs. They still own you. You are still a member. You fought the wars.”

That was not exactly Mr. Cooper’s problem when he chose to lend his name to the letter, but it was something akin to it for the former Wildrose MLA. 

He may or may not have been acting as a partisan UCP MLA, which might well be a legitimate reason to demand his resignation even if it was unlikely to produce results. 

But if he was acting out of loyalty as a partisan of a party than no longer exists in opposition to the government party he was elected as part of, I suppose you could make the case this is a slightly different matter, the political equivalent of getting off on a technicality. 

After all, he wasn’t denouncing other parties, he was denouncing his own. This was certainly undignified, embarrassing even, and on COVID-19 it was wrong-headed to boot, but it probably ought not to be considered a firing offence. 

Call it an error in judgment, that shouldn’t be repeated, but not a total disgrace. 

14 Comments to: Speaker Nathan Cooper’s signature on dissident MLAs’ COVID complaint an error of judgment, not quite a firing offence

  1. Anonymous

    April 9th, 2021

    I’m just not believing anything the UCP says anymore. Sensible and rational Albertans want the UCP gone in 2023. With this dissent in the UCP ranks, perhaps the sewer rats are leaving the sinking ship.

    Reply
  2. Political Ranger

    April 9th, 2021

    The Prince, Duke of Edinburgh died today. He was a dignified man in a dignified monarchy. What would have qualified as a disgraceful act for this man in this setting would be a common, everyday act by most of us; a cough or a sneeze, a failure to acknowledge someone speaking, touching someone.
    Say what you will; he was an honorable man and a credit to his family and nation.

    On the other hand, we have the common, ignorant and belligerent rabble over at the UCP. What passes for ‘disgraceful’ with this mob, at least a disgrace that is worth remarking, must surely be nudging criminality and certainly passes into loathsome and contemptible.
    Even in tRump-times these goof-offs are an embarrassment to behold.

    Reply
    • Rocky

      April 9th, 2021

      Not sure I entirely agree with your assessment of the late HRH. Bit of a loose cannon, I would have thought, prone to slips of the lip that embarrassed the monarchy. Probably got that from his Uncle Looey, the great military strategist. Nor do I think you can call a monarchy that contains Randy Andy and his brother Chuckles (remember that phone call to the Rottweiler?), and sundry others. Still, I get your point. They certainly look good compared to the former president of the United States and his hayseed acolytes in Alberta.

      Reply
  3. Abs

    April 9th, 2021

    Now there’s a catchy campaign slogan: not a total disgrace. That’s as good as it gets. So many of them are total disgraces, for two years and counting. Now I hope they get back to fighting their demons and imaginary monsters. They cause less harm when they’re tilting at windmills.

    Reply
  4. Dave

    April 9th, 2021

    You do have to wonder – a bunch of UCP MLA’s are skating very close to the line here. I would take their statement to be a public criticism of government policy. If they can’t live with it there are essentially two options – resign from the government or get removed.

    While I don’t think their criticisms of the more stringent COVID rules are correct, I do think I understand where it comes from. First of all there is more COVID fatigue as things wear on and second the Premier himself created this situation, with his waffling and not listening to his caucus.

    I suspect a bunch of them got tired of the ongoing Kenney lecture series. This is a far cry from the grassroots guarantee Kenney signed when he became leader, which he has mostly ignored since then. This is the sort of thing that happens when people feel they are not being listened too. Kenney is good at giving rousing speeches at times, but not so much at listening to anyone.

    Reply
  5. Just Me

    April 9th, 2021

    When Premier Crying & Screaming Midget is as politically damaged as he is, everyone has their knife at his back.

    Kenney has struck me, even from his early years as a young politico, as someone who was smug in his own perceived brilliance. Indeed, I have no doubt he is ready to take credit for the sunrise, if he could get away with it. The biggest problem with Kenney, as evidenced by his tenure in federal politics, is that he needs to be protected from his own bumbling. Seems Kenney was exceptionally good at gaslighting himself, whenever troubles of his own making arose. (The shorthand to identify Kenney during that period around Ottawa was “Bumbles”.) Worse, he’s has never learned from his litany of failures, because he believes himself to be forever blessed by favourable providence. His luck may have just run out.

    But being the constant pugilist, Kenney will turn his attack dogs loose on the UCP caucus and the respective riding associations and force them to obey his will. Of course, such activity will be evidence of the hot civil war that is brewing within the UCP.

    Everyone knew how Kenney stole the leadership, but with all the failures piling up, it looks like the line of protection for Bumbles is wearing thin.

    Reply
  6. Bret Larson

    April 9th, 2021

    “is repugnant and will inevitably encourage spread of the coronavirus”

    I dont think you have a leg to stand on the warrant such a statement. Government impositions do not save people from the covid 19. Individual people actions does provide protection.

    They are not the same.

    However, government shutdowns do lead to businesses going under and loss of employment.

    Its not surprising that people who get paid anyways would not see the look of the policy from both sides.

    Reply
    • Abs

      April 9th, 2021

      Three out of four Albertans polled by Angus Reid agree that Kenney has done a bad job managing Covid. Only Kenney could unite Albertans in this way.

      Our premier is the number one bad premier in Canada. The people have spoken. All this just in time for #ZeroCovidDayOfAction. We have a zero. So we win?

      Reply
    • ayeamaye

      April 9th, 2021

      We are into the second year of the pandemic and you’re saying this? We should approach the virus like Brazil? Four thousand dead in one day. Or rather Australia, who locked everything down at the first sign of trouble a TOTAL of 900 dead. The problem wasn’t the lockdowns, it was the re-openings. Lock it down until zero new cases… problem solved.

      Reply
    • A.O.

      April 12th, 2021

      @Bret
      How about when those individuals choose to form a group in order to protest their supposed ‘rights’ not to comply with any ucp imposed restrictions they oppose,then march by the hundreds in front of public infrastructure (city hall, Princes’ Island Park), march through Chinook Centre, etc. in order to disrupt and endanger the lives of other people?

      The ucp has completed almost 2 years of their mandate – I take it you didn’t receive a plum appointment to some political position or to sit on some dreamed up partisan ucp committee or panel? Perhaps you should start looking around for all those high paying jobs that kenney promised to find for laid off oil workers instead of wishing ill on hardworking people employed in unionized professions or by municipalities.

      Reply
  7. Scotty on Denman

    April 9th, 2021

    Indeed, Speaker Cooper’s stand in this matter was embarrassing, if not grave. Yet, such gravity as there might be seems rather outweighed by the humiliating fix the UCP government has gotten itself into.

    It’s a difficult formula that the Speaker shows impartiality more assiduously the more competitive the parliament is. Since the office is normally filled by a member of a majority governing caucus, the Speaker must be careful to show he or she doesn’t side with his or her party in a rote or partial way. But it’s relatively easy to do against one’s party when it dominates the parliament; dead easy when there’s no other party with enough seats to qualify as or enjoy the prerogatives of Loyal Opposition, the agenda opportunities in parliament and committee, speaking, tabling bills, researching, and so forth. Any majority government can easily work around obstructing procedural technicalities the Speaker might impose.

    However, when partisan competition is evenly aimed and distributed, especially in the hung parliament, technicalities that would have been mere delay for a strong majority have potential to derail cabinet’s policy agenda—or even fray the thread by which such a parliament hangs. Very occasionally, voters elect a parliament so evenly split that the Speaker is called upon to cast the deciding vote. The seldom used rule in this circumstance is that the Speaker sides with the party (or parties in alliance) the governor has recognized as government. Presumed and considered impartiality is affected by rote partiality in the circumstance. Thus the the office’s need to show impartiality, its perceived neutrality in any possible circumstance, is highlighted. Contingencies that go to this length shouldn’t allow ambivalence in situations of lesser importance—as Cooper has done.

    It’s a curious case in Alberta’s current parliament. It should have been easy for Speaker Cooper to remain aloof in order to show impartiality in a matter which is, so far, a party contest, not a parliamentary one. It’s a thin, thin technicality that, , strictly speaking, this UCP schism is outside of parliamentary business—at least so far—and the Speaker is somehow freed from the need to show impartiality. It is also a technicality that it’s hard to divide one’s loyalty by way of location, in or out of parliament: that’s like pretending invisibility by covering one’s eyes (or invincibility by slandering a fellow parliamentarian in the assembly, but declining to repeat it outside where immunity doesn’t extend).

    It’s such an unusual circumstance that the Speaker’s impartiality can be so easily scrutinized and questioned that, like a muscle weak from disuse, it probably failed Cooper when it should have been flexed unflinchingly against any hint of partiality—and that includes outside the hallowed walls of the assembly. What was in his mind as an elected partisan with respect the camaraderie within his own party should not have been anybody’s business but his own and, perhaps, his party leader and some others of his caucus. What he did by signing the petition might or might not be consequential and, technically or practically, it’s no biggie.

    But did he honour the office as it should be? Nope, he did not. It might pass, likewise, no biggie.

    But, since the UCP seems on a roll right now, struggling with Covid, bitumen, the federation, and modern social mores, Cooper’s action risks forming yet another nucleus of political impropriety: never mind a genuine resignation, the office could be sucked into overtly partisan territory should the premier decide to punish him in the internecine dust-up billowing higher above the UCP wagon laager. The K-Boy’s cultish siege mentality has already offended appropriate traditions of politics in his own province and of diplomacy with the federation; if consistently tRumpesque as he has been during the whole evolution of the UCP, then expecting partisan loyalty from the Speaker, like tRump expected a quid pro quo of favourable decisions from judges he got appointed, might be unabashedly displayed. Let the doors of the sausage factory be flung open for all to see, even when it’s as self-damning as knowingly sending packing plant workers into the meat grinder of Covid 19. It wouldn’t be the first time Kenney has thumbed his nose at conservative traditions his party nominally upholds but cynically tramples under hoof virtually every day.

    The office of Speaker is traditionally a quiet, uncontroversial one, and normally succeeds in keeping citizens ignorant of its intestinal stuffings. Occasionally, however, voters elect a parliament so composed that the Speakership can’t be so discrete. British Columbians had such an occasion when, in the 2017 general election, the long-governing BC Liberal party came up one seat short of a majority and was toppled when its Throne Speech was defeated by combined NDP and Green votes, losing the confidence of the Assembly. The next problem was that, if the new Speaker came from either caucus which allied to topple Christy Clark’s minority, then the parliament would be tied and the Speaker compelled by tradition to side with the would-be Green-Dipper alliance so it could govern, a rare time Speaker impartiality is subordinated to getting bills passed.

    Christy might have used the Speaker problem to argue, after she lost the confidence vote, for another general election but, after her dramatic walk, alone but surrounded by news cameras, from the Assembly to the Governor’s residence, the Governor properly followed the rule of confidence, allowed the victorious alliance a chance to govern, and rejected the BC Liberal leader’s request (in contrast, Her Excellency Michele Jean erred by letting Stephen Harper prorogue the House after a bill was tabled but before the subsequent confidence vote could take place—a vote Harper would have lost: she didn’t allow the newly forged opposition alliance (Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois) a chance to topple the HarperCon minority and to govern—as she should have. A constitutional crisis was narrowly averted when an opposition MP was persuaded to not appeal the GG’s decision directly to the Queen).

    The focus became filling the BC Speaker’s chair. Now, having a Speaker who sides with the government to break ties (and prevent nonconfidence ) by rote was reassuring for the new Green-Dipper alliance, although traditional decorum required they display discomfort with the situation in much the same way as newly elected Speakers feign resistance as they’re ceremonially “dragged” to the chair. The problem was somewhat relieved when, instead of a Green-Dipper MLA applying for the job as normal, a BC Liberal MLA volunteered to serve as Speaker instead—a conspicuously conspicuous anomaly, one might say. But did it help restore the impartiality of the office that’d been so challenged by the circumstance? It’s hard to say because things quickly got weirder.

    Bob Plecas might have reasoned his Speakership could at least relive the potential perception that a Green-Dipper Speaker could bias decisions in favour of the NGP government with impunity by hiding behind the traditional solution of siding with the government by rote to break tie votes and preserve confidence. Whatever his mind, Christy Clark, in one of her first acts as Loyal Opposition —and last acts as leader of her party—kicked Speaker Plecas out of the BC Liberal caucus, perhaps in high peeve that could only manifest as partisan rage, perhaps not quite appreciating the laudable thing he might have been trying to do (Speakers, like governors, are not obliged to, nor ever likely to, explain their reasonings) . The BC Speaker thus became an Independent MLA. And thus, the Speaker’s circumstantially required rote-partiality was successfully, if surprisingly, replaced by impartiality easily perceived of an Independent MLA, despite the dead heat and tippy split in numbers of seats. Seldom does Speakership perform gymnastics like this!

    Whatever it was, it might have stoked Christy’s maudlin resignation of not only her party and Loyal Opposition leadership, but her seat, to boot. The thinnest possible mandate to govern was thus helped twice as the Loyal Opposition had depleted itself by two seats. The Green-Dipper alliance lasted for less than the so-called “fixed term” when the Green leader resigned to sit as an Independent, effectively nullifying, NDP leader John Horgan argued, the four-year confidence and supply agreement that’d preserved the thinnest majority for only three years.

    The BC Governor surely appreciated the case that the NDP needed a stronger mandate in order to deal with Covid, but she might have also considered the notable increase of partisan competitiveness in this Assembly (now three parties and two Independents), with its potential to make Speaker-impartiality less perceptible in a highly contentious and precarious parliament. Hogan thence became one of a series of Premiers to buck intuition and rivals’ caterwauling by holding a so-called “early election” —and winning a stronger mandate despite the logistical difficulties presented by Covid.

    To be fair, Cooper has at least made the office of Speaker more topical than it normally ever is. Hopefully citizens will be afforded a better understanding of their government and parliament. No biggie, though. He shouldn’t have signed the petition, it might have been an honest mistake but, as much as it besmirches the office, it’s more interesting as a gage of UCP dyspepsia.

    Reply
  8. Bob Raynard

    April 9th, 2021

    ” Government impositions do not save people from the covid 19. Individual people actions does provide protection.”

    So I guess the solution is to allow restaurants to open, but have no one go to them. Yeah, that works, I guess.

    Reply
  9. jerrymacgp

    April 10th, 2021

    Without by any means defending Mr Cooper, this event brings to light the inherent dilemma of an MLA — or MP — who gets elected by their peers to be Speaker. Under our system of government, that MLA or MP, while acting primarily as the referee of the assembly, also continues to represent their constituency. So, are constituents of a Speaker disempowered by having an elected representative who cannot sit in either the government or opposition caucus, and must remain neutral on most of the business transacted in the assembly? I wonder …

    Reply
    • Deb

      May 3rd, 2021

      Exactly Jerry. Time to reassess how government is run. We don’t elect MLAs to fall in with draconian elitist protocols. The AB Lt. Gov isn’t busy. Let her be the speaker.
      Brett and Bob. I totally agree with you. Government intervention is ripping this province to shreds and destroying the future of our young people. The problem has never been ‘white privilege’ but ‘elite privilege’ and we have way to many urban elites imposing their views on the majority. There has been no debate on the facts, future course of action. Just hysteria! Using tests, lockdowns and numbers of deaths to create a narrative. Seriously 350 cases per 100,000 = 0.35%!!!!

      Reply

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