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Canada

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

Political analysts are calling the Alberta government’s bluff after it announced on Monday it was firing the election commissioner who has spent months investigating its own party.

The United Conservatives 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

“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 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.

‘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.”

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“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.

“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 and that’s why it’s dangerously undemocratic and unethical,” he said.

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

Conacher said the party is simply furthering its own interests and that violates 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 —  participate in decisions when you can further your own interest or the interest of people associated with you,” he said. “And it is furthering their interest to fire this guy.”

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.”

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.

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“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.”

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.”

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

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.

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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