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Firing of Alberta election commissioner called ‘political interference,’ Opposition seeks intervention

Alberta's United Conservative government is firing the province's election commissioner, but says it's not because he is investigating the party and has fined it more than $200,000. Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt believes the move is "designed to end the investigation of the UCP leadership race in 2017."

Political analysts are calling the United Conservative government’s bluff after it announced Monday it was firing the election commissioner, who has spent months investigating that very party.

The Alberta government says the move — shifting the job and staff to the chief electoral officer — is a cost-savings one. However, Mount Royal University political analyst Duane Bratt said it’s nothing short of a cover-up.

“This is political interference,” he said Tuesday. “This is just their cover story — that this is just an administrative move designed to save $200,000 a year in a $50-billion budget.”

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READ MORE: Alberta government firing election commissioner who was investigating leadership

For months, Lorne Gibson has been investigating the 2017 UCP leadership race that saw Jason Kenney win the top spot in the party, which won a majority government in April. It’s been alleged leadership candidate Jeff Callaway ran a so-called kamikaze campaign to ensure Brian Jean lost. More than $200,000 in fines have been levied against several people connected to the party and the campaign.

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Bratt said the job change is “designed to end the investigation of the UCP leadership race in 2017.”

“If it’s simply the merging of the election commissioner with the chief electoral officer, and the chief electoral officer has the ability of hiring a new commissioner – if that position just transfers, why did they need to get rid of the individual when they didn’t get rid of the rest of the staff?” Bratt said.

Man investigating UCP leadership race losing his job
Man investigating UCP leadership race losing his job

“This is about targeting Lorne Gibson and don’t be fooled here,” he added.

“This is a cover-up. The story is quite weak. This is not an administrative move. This is really getting rid of the person investigating your party.”

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The Alberta government insisted the move won’t prevent the investigations from moving forward, but Bratt said it already could result in a lack of involvement in Callaway’s judicial review of the fines issued against him.

“Is anybody from Elections Alberta going to show up at the courts and defend these fines when their boss has just been fired over it?” Bratt questioned.

“The election commissioner position remains,” said Jason Nixon, UCP MLA and Government House Leader. “It brings our situation, when it comes to elections management, in line with basically every province in the country and with the federal government.

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“Any investigations that the chief electoral officer and the election commission deem need to continue forward, will continue,” he said.

LISTEN BELOW: Global News provincial affairs reporter Tom Vernon joins the Ryan Jespersen Show on 630 CHED

‘Dangerously undemocratic’

Duff Conacher from Democracy Watch echoed Bratt’s comments, saying Kenney firing the election commissioner is “a move by the Kenney government to protect his party from real accountability because this watchdog is investigating people in his party right now.”

“It’s a dangerously undemocratic and unethical move to be firing a watchdog in the midst of him investigating your own party and that’s exactly what Kenney is doing,” Conacher said.

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Conacher said the chief electoral officer contract expires in six months, meaning the UCP can appoint a person of its choosing to the job, who then will be able to hire their own election commissioner.

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“I’m sure they’re going to appoint a lapdog who will not re-establish the commissioner position and will then protect the ruling party, Kenney’s party, right through the next election,” he said.

READ MORE: Alberta election commissioner hands down additional $25K in fines in connection to UCP leadership investigation

Conacher claims these actions violate the conflict of interest act.

“It is furthering [Kenney’s] own interests and the interests of people associated with him and his party and that’s what you’re not allowed to do under the conflict of interest act,” he said. “And it is furthering their interest to fire this guy.”
Court documents shed light on allegations in UCP leadership campaign
Court documents shed light on allegations in UCP leadership campaign

Conacher said Gibson has acted as more of a watchdog than he’s seen any other provincial or federal election commissioner do in the past decade when it comes to holding people accountable and issuing penalties.

“What we’re seeing from the Kenney government is lots of patronage, cronyism and also gutting of watchdogs and it’s all very dangerous to the state of democracy in Alberta — huge steps backwards,” he said. “[It’s] also very unethical because it’s all to protect themselves from accountability and further their agenda without anyone able to question them.”
Alberta election commissioner issues statement after UCP’s Bill 22
Alberta election commissioner issues statement after UCP’s Bill 22

Election commissioner learned of firing through media

Gibson issued a lengthy statement to the media on Tuesday saying he was “surprised and disappointed with the news of this move, which came to my attention by way of media reports yesterday at 3 p.m.

“I am concerned about the potential negative impacts on the independence of election administration and the real and perceived integrity of the election process,” Gibson said, in part. Scroll down to read Gibson’s full statement.

Gibson said he believes Albertans need to be confident and trust in all aspects of the electoral process, and should be able to know that election laws are being followed and those who don’t follow them face consequences.

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“Sound election laws, impartial administration of these laws and effective enforcement are essential to maintain the integrity of the electoral process and the legitimacy of the outcomes of the wider processes of democratic government,” he said.

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“Inadequate enforcement of election rules can allow for inappropriate conduct to occur and that conduct can affect voter participation and election outcomes. If elections are not seen as legitimate, citizens can become discouraged from being participants in the political process as contestants in nomination contests, candidates in elections, contenders for leadership positions, volunteers on behalf of the party or candidate of their choice, or even as voters.”

Letter to lieutenant governor

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said in a news release that she’s written a letter to the Lieut.-Gov. Lois Mitchell on Tuesday asking her to intervene and deny the assent of Bill 22.

“Bill 22 is an abuse of power and an assault on the principles of democracy,” Notley said. “I am asking the lieutenant governor to step in and stop this government from passing this corrupt bill.”

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READ MORE: Rachel Notley kicked out of Alberta legislature for comment on election watchdog’s dismissal

The NDP said the bill is “an attack on the constitutionally acknowledged protections and distinctions between the executive, judicial and legislative branches” and has asked the lieutenant governor to consider whether its passing would “be an abuse of the privileges of executive council.”

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Bratt said, in his opinion, “there’s no chance that the lieutenant governor is going to intervene.”

“This is what you see in undemocratic countries,” Notley said Tuesday evening, after being kicked out of the legislature for accusing Nixon of lying. “This is that kind of bill.

“When the premier abuses his power to re-write the law so that he doesn’t have to follow it, it is an unprecedented transgression.”

Ryan Jespersen talks about listener reaction after UCP fires election commissioner
Ryan Jespersen talks about listener reaction after UCP fires election commissioner

Nixon suggested Notley take another look at how the parliamentary process works.

“Albertans elect members to come to the chamber and members inside the chamber make determinations on legislation as they go forward,” he said. “I fully expect after robust debate, all 87 members of the legislature will vote on Bill 22.”

He described the NDP’s characterization of the election commissioner firing: “completely and utterly ridiculous.”

“This is a consolidation process that brings the process back to where it was before 2018, when the NDP changed it, and in fact makes it stronger,” Nixon said.

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“The election commissioner position will remain. It will no longer report directly to the legislature; it will report to the chief electoral officer, taking it even further away from the political process. and will continue to maintain the independency of the chief electoral officer. I have the utmost faith in Mr. Resler, who is the current chief electoral officer. I have the utmost faith in the office, which has existed for a century inside this province and done the job well.”

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READ MORE: Alberta limits debate on bill to strip some public sector bargaining rights

Bratt also raised concerns about the fact that the UCP has put closure on this bill, meaning debate on the bill is limited to three hours.

“Typically closure is brought in after a long period of debate and it’s to press to a vote. In this case, debate hasn’t even started and they’ve introduced closure because they want this done as quickly as possible,” he said.

“I haven’t asked to limit debate yet,” Nixon said early Tuesday afternoon.

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“There’s three motions that give me the ability to ask to limit debate if that’s what I decide that I need to do.

“I haven’t made that decision right now. I certainly won’t be moving time allocation today. We will debate Bill 22 later this afternoon. I will make determinations on whether or not we need to allocate based on how long Bill 22 takes to proceed through the house.”

Fireworks in Alberta legislature as Notley booted over Bill 22 comments
Fireworks in Alberta legislature as Notley booted over Bill 22 comments

NDP House Leader Deron Bilous asked Tuesday for an emergency debate to be held in the legislature on the matter.

“This attack on our democratic principles and the disregard for accountability certainly constitutes an emergency,” Bilous said.

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“This government’s introduction of the closure motion prior to the introduction of the bill represents a first in the history of the Alberta legislature and is an unprecedented and outrageous oppression of members’ legislative rights.”

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— With files from Global’s Emily Mertz

11-19-electioncommisioner by Emily Mertz on Scribd