Someone once said, “The only thing worse than knowing where the bodies are buried, is watching your enemies dig them up.”
In order to ensure the Elections Commissioner’s investigation into the UCP leadership race didn’t dig up any more bodies—heaven forbid, he’d find a trail of breadcrumbs leading directly to the premier’s office—the UCP government passed Bill 22.
The UCP government says Bill 22 is an administrative bill which will result in significant savings by reducing duplication, eliminating needless spending and improving the efficiency and oversight of public agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs). This will be accomplished by dissolving and merging a bunch of ABCs.
Buried in Bill 22 is the authority to eliminate the Elections Commission, effectively firing the Elections Commissioner, Mr Lorne Gibson. Mr Gibson was investigating wrongdoing within the UCP, including claims that Jeff Callaway was a kamikaze candidate in the UCP leadership race on a mission to discredit Brian Jean (Mr Kenney’s only viable rival) and then drop out and endorse Mr Kenney. Mr Gibson levied over $200,000 in fines. There were many complaints waiting to be investigated when he got the boot.
Nothing to see here folks, move along
Mr Kenney says Mr Gibson wasn’t “fired,” his role will continue under the Chief Electoral Officer at Elections Alberta; in fact the Chief Electoral Officer can hire Mr Gibson if he likes, and no matter what, the investigation will continue.
If Mr Gibson wasn’t “fired” why is he getting six-months severance? If the Chief Electoral Officer rehires him, then Bill 22’s objective of eliminating needless spending goes out the window because the government will be paying Mr Gibson remuneration plus six-months severance. If the Chief Electoral Officer fills the role with someone else, this just shifts the Election Commissioner’s budget to the Elections Alberta budget. No cost savings there.
As to the UCP’s commitment to continue Mr Gibson’s investigations, UPC MLA Jason Nixon says the process is this: the Chief Electoral Officer and the Election Commissioner (assuming one is hired anytime soon) will go ahead with the investigations if they deem it’s necessary. In other words, if they don’t deem it’s necessary, the investigations are over.
What’s really going on here
Bill 22 is about many things, but when it comes to Mr Gibson, it is not about saving the cost of his salary and benefits (estimated to be less than $200,000/year), eliminating needless spending and or improving efficiency.
But that’s Mr Kenney’s story and his government is sticking to it.
As Ms Notley said in Question Period, “the Government House leader is misleading the House.” The Premier is rewriting the rules to allow a cover-up. “He’s firing the Election Commissioner, asking his cabinet to play along in this abuse of power, and then displaying a cowardly refusal to answer for his own actions.” She wondered what he’s trying to hide.
The Speaker of the House asked Ms Notley to apologize and withdraw the sentence “the Government House Leader is misleading the House.” She refused. (Apparently, accusing the premier of being involved in a cover-up, abusing his power and displaying cowardliness is okay, but saying something is “misleading” is not).
Ms Notley refused to back down because the convention that MLAs can’t call each other liars pales in comparison to the greater “existential threat to the integrity of our democratic system…we must be able to call it what it is.”
Ms Notley is on record saying Bill 22 is a clear example of legislative interference with the administration of justice and legislative intimidation of someone tasked with job of keeping the premier and his associates aligned with the law.
Ms Notley is not alone in her interpretation of Bill 22. Political scientists agree. Duane Bratt of Mount Royal University calls it a cover-up, plain and simple. Melanee Thomas of U of C says it’s an abuse of power.*
This appalling week in Alberta politics doesn’t end there.
What’s ethics got to do with it?
In Question Period Ms Notley asked Mr Schweitzer, the Justice Minister and Attorney General how he could support Bill 22 which “goes against the very spirit of the Attorney General’s own profession and his sworn duty, as Attorney General, to prevent the Executive Council from breaking the law.”
Mr Schweitzer did not reply. He let Mr Nixon speak on his behalf. Mr Nixon responded with the usual complaint that the NDP were engaging in “fake outrage” and “fear and smear.”
At the end of the week, the Ethics Commissioner weighed in. She said those being investigated by the Elections Commissioner or the RCMP would be in breach of s 2(1) of the Conflicts of Interest Act if they discussed the portions of Bill 22 pertaining to the Office of the Elections Commissioner or voted on it.
The UCP MLAs paid no heed to this warning. Every UCP MLA in the House voted in favour of Bill 22. Admittedly not every UCP MLA is “under investigation” but some of them are and they should have abstained from the vote.
Mr Kenney steered clear of the Legislature while Bill 22 was debated and voted upon. He went to Texas to drum up investment in Alberta (rather like carrying coals to Newcastle). By running away, he avoided a potential conflict of interest violation…and left his MLAs holding the bag.
Mr Schweitzer on the other hand took to Twitter to attack anyone suggesting he may have been in a conflict of interest position, eventually reducing his tweets to a Trump-like NO CONFLICT. All that was missing were three exclamation points and a typo.
The UCP government passed Bill 22 under the guise of cost savings and efficiency, but the effect of Bill 22 is to undermine democracy in Alberta.
In his book The Road to Unfreedom, historian Timothy Snyder warns that democracies die when people cease to believe voting matters. The question is not whether elections are held, but whether they are free and fair. How can Alberta’s elections be free and fair when government shuts down an independent parliamentary watchdog’s investigation into illegal campaign contributions and a kamikaze campaign in a leadership race that ultimately led to the party’s leader becoming premier.
This matter is far from over.
Bill 22 did two things. It showed the UCP government will abuse its power to benefit the UCP party and it confirmed our worst fears: the good old boys are back.
It took Albertans decades to get rid of the last batch of good old boys; it won’t take them that long to do it again. Because regardless of how deep the bodies are buried, they will float up to the surface sooner or later.
You can bet on it.
*See Markham Hislop’s interview with Dr Thomas https://youtu.be/ottP7XV6fMo