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Conservative MPs up for Speaker's job battle to prove who is least partisan

Now that’s something you don’t hear every day — Conservative MPs jockeying to prove who among them is the least partisan and the most likely to get along with the opposition.

A full-fledged competition is underway for the next Speaker of the House of Commons, who will be chosen on June 2 and officially kick-off a new session of Parliament.

Government House Leader John Baird announced Monday that the Governor General will read the new majority Conservative government’s speech from the throne a day later, on June 3.

As far as the Speaker’s job goes, the race is wide open thanks to the retirement of Liberal MP Peter Milliken, who had a lock on the job for 10 years.

Half-a-dozen Conservative MPs are now vying for the post. Liberal MP Mauril Belanger is also rumoured to be throwing his hat in the ring again, but there is no indication from the NDP of a candidate from their ranks.

No woman has indicated an intention to run yet — the only one to hold the job was Jeanne Sauve from 1980-84.

“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen, so that makes it interesting,” says Ontario Tory MP Dean Allison, who will put his name on the secret ballot.

The hallowed Speaker’s job comes with a $233,000 salary, a car and driver, country estate, parliamentary apartment and considerable powers, including the ability to cast tie-breaking votes.

The Conservative caucus has had little to sink its teeth into in the way of internal competition for years, given that leadership has not been an issue since 2003.

But the fight is on. MPs are getting calls from the contenders who respectfully outline their qualifications.

Ever-cheerful Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer, who has worked alongside Peter Milliken as deputy speaker and assistant deputy speaker, is again trying his luck. He’s also the only functionally bilingual candidate among the Conservative MPs in the running. The NDP has said it believes the Speaker should be bilingual.

“I think back in 2004 I was quite the heckler, quite the partisan guy, and spending so many years in the chair has really taught me the importance of impartiality for the chair occupants but also a better personal understanding of what motivates other members of other parties,” said Scheer, who turns 31 on the weekend.

“(It’s) the idea that while you certainly might believe that your ideas and your policies are the best for Canada, not to take anything away from the opposition MPs who truly do want the same thing that you want — for Canada to be the best country in the world.”

The Speaker of the House of Commons has a significant ceremonial and diplomatic role that includes hosting visitors and dignitaries, and travelling abroad to be the face of the Canadian Parliament.

Commons veteran Lee Richardson, in Quebec at the moment to brush up on his French, says he thinks his many years in the House on and off since 1988 would serve MPs well. The Calgarian first came to work in Ottawa in 1972.

“I’m less partisan than many, having been in opposition and in government, I think I have a pretty good sense of balance and fairness of the place, but also the history of the place,” said 63-year-old Richardson.

“I remember how it was and how it could be. I think we need to make some changes, but I think it’s possible. I think we’ve got a great opportunity now with two strong parties and a four-year mandate, to return to some of the civility of old and the respect for the House.”

Other Conservative candidates include Ontario MPs Barry Devolin, Bruce Stanton and Ed Holder, and Manitoba’s Merv Tweed. Devolin, Tweed and Scheer tried for the job in 2008, with Devolin and Scheer making it to the last round against Milliken.

“I think my personality and my approach to politics are well suited to a role like this, a facilitator’s role. I’m not very partisan, I don’t really have much of a temper,” said former Commons committee chairman Devolin, who said he’s “approaching” bilingualism after four years of studies.

“It’s always my objective to work with people and get things done in a co-operative way, whether it’s in my riding or whether it’s here in Ottawa.”

The new Speaker will be keeping the peace in a Commons very different than its predecessor. At least 103 New Democrats will fill the Opposition seats.

The Liberals are reduced to third place and the Bloc Quebecois left without official party status.

The resumption of the House will also mark Elizabeth May’s debut as the Green party’s first elected MP.

“Obviously, Canadians elected a very, very different Parliament,” Baird said. “It’s not just a big change, obviously, for us, for the first time in what, 23 years, to get a majority government, but obviously to have the largest official Opposition in a long time.

“It’s the first time the New Democrats face off against the government directly and I think that should make for some interesting times and good debates.”

Baird said a majority government will provide stability and that may make for a calmer Commons.

“I hope we’ll be able to change the tone and to have a more productive working environment.”