Premier Jason Kenney’s decision to eliminate his province’s independent election commissioner and fold the position into Elections Alberta is a step back from what was one of Canada’s best electoral monitoring systems, according to experts.
Mr. Kenney and his ministers have defended last week’s decision to remove the province’s election watchdog as necessary to cut costs as well as to bring Alberta’s system in line with other provinces. A 2017 overhaul split the system between a provincial agency that runs elections and an independent office focused on investigations. Rather than a weakness, that uncommon system has been a strength, according to a former chief electoral officer in British Columbia.
“Alberta was truly ahead of the evolutionary curve when it defined the position and independent role of the election commissioner in 2017,” said Harry Neufeld, B.C.’s chief electoral officer from 2002 to 2010.
The position of election commissioner exists at the federal level and in Manitoba, however both of those positions are appointed by the heads of their respective election agencies. Before Mr. Kenney’s decision, Alberta’s election commissioner ran an independent office and reported directly to the provincial legislature that appointed the position.
“Everywhere else in Canada the Chief Electoral Officer is in charge of both the administration of elections and the enforcement of election laws. This can pose conflicting priorities if, for example, the CEO is required to investigate election law offences committed by election officials they have hired,” said Mr. Neufeld, who now works as a consultant on how to manage elections.
Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson focused much of his attention on Mr. Kenney’s United Conservative Party in the 17 months his position existed. Mr. Gibson oversaw 74 investigations and levied more than $210,000 in fines, most of them incurred by conservative supporters involving allegations that leadership candidate Jeff Callaway violated election finance laws to fund a campaign that was designed to help Mr. Kenney’s leadership bid. The RCMP are also pursuing an investigation into allegations of voter fraud in the UCP’s leadership race.
Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, said that the government’s changes to the position would not have been as much of a problem if they had been handled differently. The bill, which eliminated the position, was introduced on a Monday evening and approved by the legislature on Thursday afternoon.
“It’s the timing of it and the remarkable rush with which they moved it through that’s problematic. This wasn’t urgent. It could have happened a year from now, but taking this action while the investigation is ongoing seems like an attempt to harm the investigation,” she said.
Speaking with reporters on Friday, Mr. Kenney said the decision to fire Mr. Gibson and dissolve his office was not linked to the investigation into the leadership race. Despite firing the chief investigator and moving what’s left of his four-person office to Elections Alberta, the Premier said he saw “no reason for any interruption to any investigation by the office of the commissioner.”
According to Mr. Kenney, the decision to terminate the independent office will only consolidate “redundant elections bureaucracy” and align Alberta with other provinces.
The opposition New Democrats have called Mr. Kenney’s move an act of “corruption” that has undermined the province’s democratic system.
Mr. Gibson has not responded to questions from The Globe and Mail since his firing.
Keith Brownsey, who teaches political science at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said the government’s decision sets back electoral oversight in the province. “Alberta was a leader in this. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more provinces follow that lead over the next five years,” he said.
He said the legislation, passed by Alberta’s former NDP government, clearly split responsibility between the two main election officials and wasn’t redundant.
The Alberta government initially defended the firing by saying the decision would save the province about $200,000 annually – slightly less than the amount of fines Mr. Gibson has levied. That narrative has since changed to aligning the province with the rest of the country.
Jess Sinclair, a spokeswoman for House Leader Jason Nixon, did not address the arguments that provinces should be moving toward independent commissioners. Instead, she simply said: "Other provinces don’t have election commissioners.”