Edmonton

Opinion | Alberta government suffers self-inflicted wound by firing election commissioner

On Monday, the UCP government announced its new Bill 22 would eliminate Lorne Gibson’s job as the province’s independent election commissioner. The news hit like a bombshell.

Lorne Gibson has been investigating fiscal wrongdoing in the UCP's 2017 leadership race

The bill ending Lorne Gibson's role as Alberta's election commissioner is now law. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Politics in Alberta is taking a turn from the bizarre to the surreal to the dangerous.

On Monday, the UCP government announced its new Bill 22 would eliminate Lorne Gibson's job as the province's independent election commissioner.

The news hit like a bombshell. Gibson has been investigating fiscal wrongdoing in the UCP's 2017 leadership race, and has so far levied more than $200,000 in fines against UCP members.

And now, he is about to be axed.

On Tuesday, Opposition Leader Rachel Notley was ejected from the legislative assembly after a heated exchange with the government over the legislation.

She had called the bill a "corrupt act" and accused government House Leader Jason Nixon of misleading the assembly when he said, "no one is firing anybody."

In fact, Gibson is losing his job. As Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a news conference Monday on Bill 22, "this position is being terminated."

If this is beginning to sound confusing, the fault lies with the government that itself seems confused.

The government is playing with semantics. Nixon said the position is merely being transferred to the auspices of the chief electoral officer and all investigations currently underway will continue.

However, even though the government is transferring over five office staff members, it is pointedly not transferring Gibson.

It will be up to the chief electoral officer whether to fill the position with Gibson or somebody else. Or do the job himself. Or let the position remain vacant.

Toews said the move will save $200,000 a year. That's pretty much Gibson's annual salary.

The government insists there is nothing untoward here.

Finance Minister Travis Toews announced Monday that Lorne Gibson's position was being terminated. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

But think about it: The UCP government is terminating Gibson's job while he is investigating the UCP's 2017 leadership race.

And the government is already invoking time allocation — or closure — on debate. That means the Bill could be passed in a few days while Premier Jason Kenney is conveniently on a business trip to Texas and spared the daily grilling in the assembly.

The optics alone are terrible. Never mind what this shakeup will do to investigations underway.

That's why Notley was so furious Tuesday she refused to apologize: "We see a corrupt act to interfere with an investigation in this House. We must be able to call it what it is because I have never seen a threat to this House like Bill 22, not in the province's history. I cannot apologize until we have fully canvassed every effort to stop the destruction of this democracy."

The Speaker ordered her out of the assembly "for the rest of the day." But based on precedent, she might not be allowed back in until she apologizes.

Playing out in the background to all this is the government's apparent personal animosity toward Gibson.

The UCP never wanted an independent election commissioner and especially not one with Gibson in the role.

After refusing an order to apologize in the Alberta Legislature, Opposition Leader Rachel Notley is removed by Speaker Nathan Cooper. 6:33

The NDP introduced both in May of 2018, saying Gibson had displayed a noble independence while he was Alberta's chief electoral officer from 2006 to 2009.

During that time he poked, prodded and embarrassed the Progressive Conservative government-of–the-day by pointing out serious shortcomings in the 2008 general election, where 27 per cent of voters were left off the list and some people waited hours to vote.

Gibson complained he couldn't conduct a proper enumeration of voters because of Alberta's bizarre, antiquated and unfair practice where the PC government controlled who would be the chief ballot-counter in every constituency. It was the stuff of banana republics.

Gibson made 182 recommendations to improve the system. The government eventually adopted many of his suggestions, but Gibson had proven to be such a thorn in the government's side that in 2009, PC MLAs voted against renewing his contract, effectively firing him.

In 2018, UCP opposition members unsuccessfully voted against his appointment as election commissioner.

"There are a number of very public and controversial stories out there in regard to Mr. Lorne Gibson in his previous role here in Alberta as chief electoral officer," said UCP MLA Angela Pitt. "I fear that the public may view this appointment in a negative light."

Yes, but the only reason there were controversial stories about Gibson was because he had spoken truth to power and been punished for it. This seemed to make the UCP, as government-in-waiting, nervous.

Now that the UCP is in charge, Gibson is being effectively fired once again.

For Alberta politics, it is a move that is bizarre and surreal but, most of all, dangerous.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.  

About the Author

You can find columnist Graham Thomson's thoughts and analysis on provincial politics every Friday at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News and during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.

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