The firing of Alberta’s election commissioner by the United Conservative Party government of Jason Kenney is such an obviously poor decision that, in normal times, it would be reversed by the end of the week.
But these are not normal times. Mr. Kenney, armed with a powerful double majority of both the popular vote and the seats in the Alberta Legislature, seems to be indifferent to the fact he shouldn’t use his newfound power for personal political gain.
The termination of the contract of Alberta’s election commissioner, Lorne Gibson, is the latest manifestation of this high-handed attitude, and it is by far the most egregious.
As elections commissioner, Mr. Gibson has doggedly investigated financial irregularities that occurred during the UCP leadership race in 2017 that Mr. Kenney won. Mr. Gibson has handed down more than $207,000 in fines to date, much of it in connection with the so-called “kamikaze candidate.”
That case involves allegations that another UCP leadership candidate, Jeff Callaway, ran as a straw man designed to attack Mr. Kenney’s main opponent for the leadership, Brian Jean of the defunct Wildrose Party, and then drop out at the last minute and endorse Mr. Kenney.
The two men have denied working together, and Mr. Kenney has dismissed the allegations as “conspiracy theories.” But leaked e-mails showed that a member of his campaign provided Mr. Callaway’s team with material that included speaking notes, messaging plans and a proposed timeline for Mr. Callaway to drop out of the race.
Mr. Gibson’s investigation into the UCP leadership race is continuing, but now it is in peril. The UCP government this week introduced legislation that would immediately terminate Mr. Gibson’s contract (it was to run until 2023) and transfer his responsibilities to Elections Alberta, the independent agency that administers provincial votes.
The government also introduced a motion of closure that could limit debate on the bill to a paltry three hours.
On the plain face of it, this comes across as an attempt by the governing party to interfere with an investigation that has embarrassed party supporters and risks reaching into the office of the Premier.
The government denies this. Finance Minister Travis Toews says the sole goal of the decision is to save $200,000 a year by absorbing Mr. Gibson’s responsibilities into Elections Alberta – which is in fact where the election commissioner was based until 2018. The former NDP government of Rachel Notley hived off the job and hired Mr. Gibson in an effort to better enforce campaign spending rules.
Mr. Toews also says the chief electoral officer, Glen Resler, can rehire Mr. Gibson if he wants, and continue his investigations. Neither of these claims ring true.
A saving of only $200,000 a year hardly seems worth it if the end result is to embroil the government in a major political controversy.
More critically, there is no guarantee that Mr. Gibson will be rehired by the chief electoral officer. Until and unless that happens, the outcome will effectively be that the governing party of Alberta has fired an independent parliamentary watchdog whose findings were embarrassing to its leader.
That would be a clear abuse of power. But whether Mr. Kenney is sensitive to that is doubtful. In another case of ethically challenged behaviour by his government, last week the Justice Minister’s office said it saw no problem with the fact the head of a public inquiry gave a $905,000 sole-source contract to the law firm where his son is a partner.
The Opposition has asked the provincial ethics commissioner to investigate the contract approved by Steve Allan, who was named by the Kenney government to lead a public inquiry into dubious allegations that foreign money was funnelled to groups opposing oil sands development.
Investigation aside, the public could be left with the clear impression of cronyism. Between that case and the firing of Mr. Gibson, it is apparent that Mr. Kenney believes that his party’s electoral dominance gives him a green light to ignore the norms of parliamentary fair play, and to shape the rules in his favour and that of his supporters.
Mr. Kenney became Premier this year at a time when Alberta’s economy is suffering from the fall in oil prices and a lack of pipeline capacity. It has enough real problems; it doesn’t need the addition of a government that ignores the rules as it sees fit.