Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is dismissing concerns over a new law that fired the man who was investigating wrongdoing within the United Conservative Party.
The legislation makes the commissioner’s job a staff position in the chief electoral office. It also specifies that commissioner Lorne Gibson’s contract, which was to run until 2023, be terminated.
The bill was introduced in the legislature Monday and was given royal assent on Friday.
“This simply brings the enforcement function back into the office of the chief electoral officer, where it resided from 1905 to 2018, and where it resides in every other province,” Kenney said following a groundbreaking for a new youth mental health facility in Calgary.
“The change strengthens the independence of the commissioner, because now the commissioner will be appointed by the independent arm’s-length chief electoral officer, not by politicians.”
Kenney said he and other conservatives believed it was redundant to have an election commissioner and a chief electoral officer occupying separate offices, a decision made by the former NDP government.
“Our government is committed to consolidating redundant agencies, boards and commissions,” he said. ”This is one whose creation we opposed. It made no sense.”
Kenney’s government has been accused of rushing the legislation through by invoking time limits on debate. Kenney was away on a trade mission in Texas while the omnibus bill was working its way through the legislature this week.
The premier said it needed to be done quickly to provide certainty to three dozen agencies, boards and commissions that are undergoing structural change.
Concerns that the move amounts to political interference in an ongoing investigation are based on “misreporting and mischaracterization,” he added.
Gibson had been investigating fundraising violations tied to the 2017 UCP leadership race won by Kenney and had so far levied more than $200,000 in fines.
The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, also called Elections Alberta, said all investigations will continue under its mandate.
It said it will act independently and apply the law consistently and fairly.
“Transition activities will be taking place, commencing with a review of the current activities of the former Office of the Election Commissioner, to determine ongoing budgetary, workload, and resource needs,” Elections Alberta said in a statement.
It added it doesn’t know when a new election commissioner will be hired, but chief electoral officer, Glen Resler, will do the job in the meantime.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said a letter has been sent to Resler asking that he provide a report to the legislature on the efforts being taken to ensure documents aren’t lost during the transition.
“We don’t want any accidental clerical shredding mistakes,” she said in Edmonton.
Notley said the report wouldn’t get into the substance of the investigations, but would outline how documents are being secured, where they are being kept and who has access. It would also include a sworn assurance that nothing has been removed or destroyed.
Elections Alberta’s mention of budgetary considerations in its statement means there’s no guarantee investigations will continue, she suggested.
“But even if they do, the people that would be doing those investigations just saw their boss publicly fired and punished for holding premier Kenney to account and his associates to account,” Notley said.
“There’s not a court or an expert in this area that would not describe what has just happened as a fundamental interference with the administration of justice. It is an abuse of power and it has been done through the legislative assembly, which is particularly sad.”
Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press