Alberta’s government is facing accusations of political interference for moving to fire the province’s elections commissioner, who is in the middle of investigating Premier Jason Kenney’s 2017 campaign for the leadership of the United Conservative Party.
Elections Commissioner Lorne Gibson — who has levied more than $200,000 in fines as part of that investigation — would see his office merged with that of the province’s chief electoral officer under Bill 22, introduced on Monday by Finance Minister Travis Toews.
The move drew criticism from the opposition and questions about interference in the work of an independent officer of the legislative assembly.
“It reeks of political inference,” Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley told reporters.
“It reeks of corruption. It reeks of the sort of entitlement and self-dealing the conservatives became known for … It’s an abuse of power. Pure and simple. You can only wonder what it is the UCP is trying to hide from Albertans in these investigations.”
Notley said her caucus will try to stop the bill from passing. She said she is planning to have it reviewed in court and that the NDP will reach out to Lt.-Gov. Lois Mitchell to see if she will refuse to sign it.
“I believe this is is corrupt. I believe this is an abuse of power,” Notley said. She argued the move to fire Gibson and remove the independence of his successor will dissuade people from standing up to the government.
Toews brushed off suggestions his government was trying to thwart Gibson’s investigation.
“Absolutely not,” Toews said. “This is about defensible structure. This is about ensuring the most efficient operation of government.
“The chief electoral officer will have full ability to rehire the existing commissioner.”
Gibson’s investigation into the so-called “kamikaze” campaign of UCP leadership candidate Jeff Callaway has led to fines against 15 people totalling $207,223.
Callaway allegedly entered the race to discredit former Wildrose leader, and Kenney’s chief rival, Brian Jean, only to drop out and endorse Kenney weeks later. Kenney and Callaway deny they worked together to defeat Jean.
Kenney, who is travelling to Texas on Monday, has not commented on the bill.
Position could remain vacant
Bill 22 says investigations currently before the elections commissioner “may” continue. The government said that wording reflects its inability to order a independent officer of the legislature to take any action.
The election commissioner position was created by the NDP government through the Act to Strengthen and Protect Democracy in Alberta. Gibson’s contract was to end in 2023.
While chief electoral officer Glen Resler can rehire Gibson or a replacement, there is no timeline for doing so, meaning the position could be left vacant.
The government estimates the change will save $1 million over five years.
Gibson was Alberta’s chief electoral officer in 2009 when his contract was not renewed by a previous Progressive Conservative government.
Gibson was turfed after suggesting 182 reforms to the province’s electoral system following the 2008 election. He sued the government for wrongful dismissal but was not successful.
In 2018, he was hired as Alberta’s first election commissioner by the previous NDP government.