Opposition says it’s a dark day: Bill passes to fire Alberta election watchdog

EDMONTON — The Alberta government has passed a bill to fire election commissioner Lorne Gibson, raising questions about the future of his investigation into Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party.

Kenney’s government introduced the bill on Monday and invoked time limits on all three stages of debate. It passed on Thursday.

Government house leader Jason Nixon said it was his understanding that Lt.-Gov. Lois Mitchell would sign the bill into law Friday.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said it was a dark day for democracy.

Gibson was tasked with investigating election fundraising and advertising irregularities.

“The UCP premier saw his party operatives and insiders being investigated for fraud, forgery, and illegal donations in a leadership race tied to his campaign,” said Notley.

“So he drafted legislation to effectively circumvent that independent investigation by terminating the investigator.

“Bill 22 sets a very, very dangerous precedent that Jason Kenney will overrule the will of the people in order to enforce his own, with no regard to the rule of law.”

The bill makes the election commissioner’s job a staff position under chief electoral officer Glen Resler rather than an independent office of the legislature, and specifies that Gibson’s contract be terminated.

The New Democrats have predicted that Gibson’s firing will have a chilling effect and the investigation will die.

The UCP has said it’s strictly a cost-saving move and there is nothing stopping a new election commissioner from continuing the investigation.

Kenney addressed the bill Thursday afternoon, taking questions from viewers on Facebook from Texas, where he has been all week on a trade mission.

Kenney said the move saves money, about $1 million over five years, and restores election investigations to the way they were under the chief electoral officer before the prior NDP government created Gibson’s job in 2018.

He said he expects ongoing investigations will proceed, including the one against the UCP.

“There should be no interruption in any ongoing investigations or any enforcement action,” said Kenney.

“If we did this (change) two years from now or five years from now we’d get the same complaints,” he added.

He didn’t specifically address why Gibson, whose contract runs until 2023, had to be immediately let go. But he suggested the appointment was tainted by politics from the start, with the governing NDP picking Gibson for the job in 2018 over the objections of the then-opposition UCP.

And he said letting Resler, rather than politicians, pick the election commissioner strengthens the firewall between politicians and independent legislature officers.

“The NDP histrionics on this issue have been just classic overkill,” said Kenney.

Gibson had been investigating fundraising violations tied to the 2017 UCP leadership race and had so far levied more than $200,000 in fines.

Kenney won the race and earlier this year the United Conservatives won the general election.

The NDP made several last-ditch attempts to stop the bill.

The caucus wrote to Mitchell asking her to intervene on the grounds that the bill was an abuse of privilege by Kenney’s government. Notley said Mitchell responded that she would not intervene.

Notley also wrote to ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler asking that she ban the entire UCP caucus from voting on the bill. Notley argued all United Conservatives were in a conflict of interest because they would benefit from having Gibson’s contract terminated.

Trussler’s response letter, released by the NDP just before the final vote, said she would need more time to investigate, but cautioned that, on the surface, some UCP members could be at risk of a conflict.

Nixon said of Trussler’s letter: “I can’t speak to what each member’s obligations are with the Conflicts of Interest Act, but we are confident that nobody has violated that in the voting process.”

Gibson, in a public letter earlier this week, said his office has received more than 800 complaints of election irregularities. He said he was concerned that his dismissal would undermine faith in the independence and integrity of the election process.

Questions over the bill also led to Notley being kicked out of the chamber. She was ousted Tuesday by Speaker Nathan Cooper when she refused to apologize after accusing Nixon of misleading the house on the bill.

Notley has said Cooper’s office has made it clear to her that she must apologize before she will be allowed back. She said Thursday her plan is to come back next week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2019.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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