TORONTO – Longtime Liberal Dave Levac was elected Speaker of the Ontario legislature Monday, taking the reins as chief political referee in Ontario’s first minority parliament in a generation.
Before being whisked away to be fitted for his new black robes, Levac admitted he “got a little verklempt” in the legislature after learning the results of the secret ballot.
“I’ve prepared for this for a long time in terms of my skill sets and I hope I can not lose favour,” he said outside the chamber. “I deeply appreciate the confidence that the members have shown.”
His experience as a former school principal should also come in handy as he takes on the new job, which comes with a bumped up $153,000 salary and an apartment in the legislature.
“I was a fair principal,” Levac said. “I was tough when they wanted me to be and I was very lax when they didn’t want me to be.”
Three of his Liberal colleagues were also vying for the job: Toronto-area members Donna Cansfield and David Zimmer, and Oakville member Kevin Flynn.
Flynn was dropped after the first ballot, while Zimmer and Cansfield – who could have been the first woman elected to the post – lost to Levac on the second ballot.
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Cansfield said she was pleased with the outcome, even though she lost an opportunity to make history.
“I put my name forward for all the right reasons, thought I had the credentials and that’s what happens,” said the former cabinet minister. “It’s called democracy.”
Zimmer, who also failed in his bid for Speaker in 2007, said he wasn’t disappointed by the results.
“As Dave Levac said – and I adopt his statement on this – that the legislature would have been well served by any of the four candidates had they won the Speakership,” he said.
But with the Speaker’s robes comes the heavy responsibility of being called upon to be the tiebreaker in a minority parliament.
The Oct. 6 election reduced the governing Liberals to just 53 of the 107 seats and the opposition together control 54.
The Speaker, by convention, tends to vote with the governing party, although there have been exceptions.
In his acceptance speech, Levac vowed to work with all three parties to “keep the dignity and the honour and the trust” of the legislature in their hands.
Levac said he has read essays by former Speaker Peter Milliken, who cast five of the 10 tiebreaking votes in the House of Commons since Confederation.
“Quite frankly there’s a very large argument to be made about how convention works, and convention is a good tool in this case (because) historically it shows how it can be done properly,” he said outside the chamber.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Levac’s experience on both sides of the legislature will help him in the impartial role of Speaker.
“I think I agree with David that no matter who was to win that position or to win that vote, they have an obligation,” she said.
“They have an obligation to neutrality and to making sure the house operates for all the members, and I know he’ll do that, as would any one of them likely.”
Levac, 57, was first elected to the legislature in 1999 and served in the Opposition benches before the Liberals took office in 2003.
In 2009, he teamed up with the NDP and Tories to pass a private member’s bill that declared Holomodor Memorial Day – to remember the victims of the man-made Ukrainian famine.
There was speculation after the Oct. 6 election that the minority Liberals might push for a Speaker from one of the opposition parties, which would level the playing field by taking away their one-vote advantage.
That didn’t happen, but the race did generate some controversy when Conservative Frank Klees announced his intention to run – against the wishes of Opposition Leader Tim Hudak.
Klees abandoned his bid less than a week later after sparking furious comments from his fellow Tories.
Levac replaces Steve Peters, who held the post since November 2007, and will be Ontario’s 41st Speaker since 1867.
Along with the higher salary and apartment, the job comes with another perk. The Speaker is one of the few people honoured with a portrait on the walls of the legislature, along with the premier.
Now that a Speaker has been chosen, the legislature can officially get back to business with a throne speech on Tuesday.
Premier Dalton McGuinty congratulated Levac on his new job Monday, noting that the role of Speaker is “vital” to ensuring that the legislature functions effectively and that “all voices are heard.”
“The challenges facing Ontario are, perhaps, greater than they have ever been since the Great Depression,” McGuinty said in a statement.
“Families are counting on their MPPs to work together to create jobs and strengthen the economy.”