Unfilled Speaker’s chair could bring on another election — this fall

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Forget about throne speeches, confidence votes and two-party deals. A looming standoff over who will be Speaker of the New Brunswick legislature could bring it all to a screeching halt.

In fact, it could plunge the province into a new election campaign this fall.

As of today, no one seems to want the job, despite its cabinet-level salary and perks, including a government car.

Unfilled Speaker's chair could bring on another election — this fall

Miramichi Bay-Neguac MLA Lisa Harris said she might be Speaker of the house at the end of her career but not now. (Jacqueline Cormier)

“Am I going to be Speaker of the house? Probably at the end of my career,” Miramichi Bay-Neguac Liberal Lisa Harris said at an orientation session for MLAs on Thursday.

When would that be?

“A long time from now,” she said.

Unfilled Speaker's chair could bring on another election — this fall

Moncton Northwest MLA Ernie Steeves said he’s not interested in being the Speaker and will do what his leader, Blaine Higgs, tells him. (CBC)

Moncton Northwest Progressive Conservative MLA Ernie Steeves said he’s not interested either.

“I’m OK,” he said. “I do whatever the leader tells me to do.”

Liberal Premier Brian Gallant and Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs both say they won’t allow any member of their respective caucuses to seek the position.

Both say it’s up to their opponent  to put forward a name.

“He’s going to have to try to put up a Speaker,” Gallant said of Higgs this week.

But Higgs says if Gallant wants to hold on to power, he should do it.

No obligation

In fact, no party is obligated to provide a Speaker. All MLAs, except ministers and party leaders, are on the ballot by default until they remove their names.

Choosing a Speaker is the first order of business when the legislature begins a new session Oct. 23 following an election in which no party won a majority.

Unfilled Speaker's chair could bring on another election — this fall

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant and PC Leader Blaine Higgs say they don’t want any of their members to become Speaker. (CANADIAN PRESS)

Gallant’s Liberals will present a throne speech. If they can persuade MLAs from two smaller parties to support it — in effect a vote of confidence in the Liberal government — they can stay in power. If they lose that vote, the PCs will be sworn in.

But the legislature’s standing rules say none of that can happen until a Speaker is chosen.  “It takes precedence “over all other business,” say the rules adopted in 1994.

“If the legislative assembly fails to elect a Speaker, then the only way that the impasse can be broken is through early dissolution and another election,” said parliamentary expert James Bowden. “That’s the most likely scenario.”

Neither leader wants a Speaker from his caucus because it would reduce their ability to pass legislation in a house where the numbers are already razor-thin.

The PCs won 22 seats and the Liberals 21. Even if either party wins the support of one of the smaller parties — the Greens or the People’s Alliance, with three seats each  — it can’t afford to give up one MLA.

Other option

If no one budges, there is another possible step before an election, Bowden said.

Because the circumstances in New Brunswick are “so strange and exceptional,” Roy-Vienneau could swear in a PC government led by Higgs “and see whether the Assembly would be willing to elect a Speaker under him.”

There are precedents for both scenarios: in 1859, the lieutenant-governor of the colonial assembly on Prince Edward Island , Dominick Daly, declared it was his “painful duty” to dissolve the house after it spent two days trying in vain to choose a Speaker.

But in Newfoundland in 1908, a similar standoff led to a new government being sworn in.

In that election, the two parties won the same number of seats and both refused to let any member become Speaker.

The incumbent Liberal premier asked for a new election, which the governor refused. The other party, the People’s Party, was sworn in, but the house still couldn’t find a Speaker. Only then was a new election was called.

With the Liberals and PCs refusing to provide a Speaker, Gallant could try to persuade an MLA from one of the smaller parties to take the post.

Alliance, Greens not interested

But People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin told CBC News no one from his three-member caucus would accept.

Unfilled Speaker's chair could bring on another election — this fall

Kris Austin, leader of the People’s Alliance Party of New Brunswick, said no one from his party will put their name forward to be Speaker. (CBC)

“We’ve been elected to be a voice in the legislature, and I think being a Speaker diminishes that voice,” he said. “And where we only have three here, we want to make sure our voice is strong.”

The three Green MLAs have also ruled it out.

Rothesay PC MLA Ted Flemming is the only member who expressed a tongue-in-cheek interest in the position this week, mainly because of the ceremonial garb that comes with it.

“It takes me back to Loyalist Days,” he said. “I had a tricorn hat when I used to be around Loyalist Days, and it would be nice to get one back because I lost the first one that I had.”

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