Government fires Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson in the midst of investigation into UCP leadership race
A government bill tabled Monday aims to dissolve the Office of the Alberta Election Commissioner and fire its head, Lorne Gibson, partway through an ongoing investigation into the United Conservative Party’s 2017 leadership campaign.
Bill 22, Reform of Agencies, Boards and Commissions and Government Enterprises Act, also contains provisions allowing the government to take over the management of public sector pensions, dissolve foundations and reduce the number of representatives on boards, among others.
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley took a hard stance against the UCP’s move to fire Gibson, calling it “corruption” and saying it “breaks democracy” for a governing party to fire a legislative officer currently investigating it.
Finance Minister Travis Toews played down Gibson’s firing as an organizational change.
“This restructuring is about finding efficiencies and ensuring the most defensible process and structure going forward,” Toews told reporters, adding that folding Gibson’s office into the chief electoral officer’s purview would save $1 million over five years.
The NDP is seeking legal advice, and Notley is attempting to arrange a meeting with Lieutenant-Governor Lois Mitchell in hopes of stopping the bill from receiving royal assent.
Notley said the bill “reeks” of the type of entitlement the former Progressive Conservative government became known for.
“The stench has returned with a vengeance under the UCP, but this is farther than I have ever seen any other political leader go,” Notley said. “It’s an abuse of power. Pure and simple.”
The former NDP government created the Office of the Election Commissioner in December 2017. Its mandate was later expanded to allow its commissioner to investigate campaign financing and third-party advertising in local government elections.
Since then, Gibson has levied more than $211,723 in fines, mostly related to Jeff Callaway’s so-called “kamikaze” campaign during the UCP’s 2017 leadership race, which was allegedly a coordinated attempt to bolster the odds of Premier Jason Kenney defeating his rival Brian Jean. So far, 16 people and five corporations have been fined, including for providing illegal donations.
Once Bill 22 receives royal assent, Gibson will be out of a job and granted six months severance.
Chief Electoral Officer Glen Resler will have the authority to appoint a new election commissioner, but is not required to. He is also under no obligation to continue the investigations being carried out by Gibson’s office. (Resler’s own contract ends in six months.)
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan compared the move to disrupt the investigation to U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempt to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated the Trump campaign, which he later backed down from.
Notley said the scrapping of the election commissioner raises questions about the independence of the RCMP, which is conducting two ongoing fraud investigations into allegations against the UCP and Calgary—East MLA Peter Singh. At least five cabinet ministers have been interviewed by police.
Premier Jason Kenney’s newly convened “Fair Deal” panel will examine the creation of a provincial police force that would operate within Alberta instead of the RCMP.
If passed, Bill 22 would allow the province’s political parties to merge and consolidate their finances.
The Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties voted to merge following the creation of the United Conservative Party in 2017, in hopes of resolving the PC Party’s debt load. Currently, parties are barred from transferring money between one another.
The bill also makes 13 other changes outlined in the UCP’s budget last month, including transferring the long-term investment management of the Workers’ Compensation Board, Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund and Alberta Health Services to the Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo).
It also includes changes to the Local Authorities Pension Plan, Public Service Pension Plan and Special Forces Pension Plan.