Braid: Wildrose’s Saskiw shows cunning in legislature

By Don Braid, Calgary Herald October 28, 2013

The peaceful glow of the first post-flood legislature day lasted about 30 minutes Monday. It ended at the precise moment when Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw called the province’s ethics law “a piece of junk.”

Thus began an eruption which showed, if there was still any doubt, that the last of Alberta’s sacred cows have been ushered out to pasture.

Wildrose will throw at the Tory government every bit of dirt it can find. The PCs, knowing this, are desperate to prevent this session from turning into a scandal a day, especially in the weeks before Premier Alison Redford’s party leadership review on Nov. 22.

With all that in mind, Saskiw’s attack is revealed as an masterpiece of legislative cunning.

When he made his crack about the ethics law, Speaker Gene Zwozdesky exploded.

He will not tolerate MLAs calling their own laws “a piece of junk,” Zwoz said. He threatened dire penalties for Saskiw, who did not look the least bit contrite.

The Wildrose member was referring to a recent ruling by Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson.

It found Edmonton MLA Peter Sandhu, elected as a PC, had breached the Conflicts of Interest Act when he failed to disclose six lawsuits against his company. Wilkinson nonetheless refused to sanction Sandhu.

While Saskiw reminded everyone of that, he managed through pure legislative gymnastics to involve another government embarrassment, Fort McMurray MLA Mike Allen.

Allen is the PC member, you will recall, who was on government business in July when he was arrested for allegedly soliciting a prostitute in St. Paul, Minn., where he now faces charges.

Allen promptly quit Redford’s PC caucus and now sits as an Independent.

But he remains, mysteriously, the chairman of the legislature’s Select Special Conflicts of Interest Act Review Committee.

That allowed Saskiw to ask — while mischievously noting that Allen is “in charge of ethics” — whether the committee is thinking of getting rid of Wilkinson.

Allen, huddled in the legislature’s Independent grotto in the back row, didn’t get to his feet.

Instead Redford answered, saying the opposition likes ethics rulings that make the PCs look bad, and hates those that don’t.

That was a dubious claim, since Wilkinson has never issued a ruling that made the government look bad.

In fact, the Sandhu ruling is the only one he’s ever done on an MLA, after nearly five years on the job.

But Wilkinson is, currently and apparently endlessly, looking into the Tobacco-gate case that Redford was allegedly in a conflict for recommending a contract for a law firm involving her ex-husband. Saskiw asked how much faith Albertans can have in that inquiry.

On Monday, Wildrose managed to wrap all this together with one series of questions. Zwozdesky, who thundered at Saskiw to be quiet, looked like he was favouring the government. Sandhu, Allen, Redford and Wilkinson all appeared to be tied up with a neat little bow.

And that helps explain, at least indirectly, what the government was up to on opening day.

The PCs released or promised a blizzard of bills on everything from regional governance to flood relief and bus lanes on Highway 63. There was so much confusion, such a wild scramble for detail, that the exercise seemed designed to wrong-foot both the opposition and the media.

Only a few years ago, all upcoming bills were described in some detail by government house leader Dave Hancock a few days before the session opened.

Now, Hancock barely seems involved. The premier’s office surely is.

And the goal, one suspects, is to ensure that a guy like Shayne Saskiw does not become the story of the day.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

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