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If you're shocked by the firing of Alberta's election commissioner, you shouldn't be

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 Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and cabinet swearing-in ceremony, April 30, 2019. . Image: Ian Jackson/Premier of Alberta/Flickr

If you're shocked that Jason Kenney's government has effectively just fired the guy who's been investigating the sleazy kamikaze campaign that preceded the premier's selection as leader of the United Conservative Party in 2017, you really haven't been paying attention.

Alberta's best-known political commentator is so shocked...

How shocked is he? …

Yesterday Don Braid, the Calgary Herald's venerable political columnist, called the mechanism to fire Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson buried in Bill 22, which will become the Reform of Agencies, Boards and Commissions and Government Enterprises Act as soon as the UCP caucus finishes rushing it through the legislature, "a genuine gasping shocker."

That it is not. Indeed, the only shock -- mild surprise, more like -- is that the UCP didn't do this sooner, like weeks after the April 16 election that brought Kenney and the UCP to power, before Gibson had the opportunity to levy $210,000 in fines on various bad actors involved in the UCP leadership race.

As was said in this space in January 2018, well before the election that brought the UCP to power, "if the government changes after the general election expected very soon, there can be no confidence a new government would not shut down the investigation for fear of what it might find."

And as I observed in July, Kenney clearly wanted to send Gibson packing as soon as possible, "if only he could think up a decent excuse that didn't make it look like he was trying to derail an ongoing investigation."

Is the perceived need to consolidate government offices, then underfund the one that's left, a good enough excuse? Any old port in a storm! So, no, this is not exactly a gasping shocker.

Most of the folks fined by the office of the election commissioner for various campaign shenanigans seem to have been involved in the effort by Jeff Callaway's leadership campaign to bring down Kenney's chief competitor, former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, while the future premier kept his paws clean. It's come to be known as a kamikaze campaign because it was intended to self-destruct the instant it had immolated Jean's ambitions.

But unless you believe there's something to guilt by association, Kenney himself has managed to escape suspicion. Still, you can't be too careful, which is why, of course, the government is now moving ahead on might alternatively be called an Act to Rid Me of That Meddlesome Election Commissioner.

The government says the investigations started by Gibson and his staff after the NDP government set up the office of the election commissioner to enforce its election financing laws will continue. If you believe that, you are probably one of the nice people who are shocked, just shocked that the unit is about to be shut down and its boss given his walking papers.

As for Finance Minister Travis Toews's risible claim this is only being done to save money, I doubt anybody believes that. Naturally, opponents of the government are offended. Opposition Leader Rachel Notley called it "an historic abuse of power in Alberta, one that is corrupt." But the government's supporters simply won't care. They'll think, with some historical perspective, that this is the way we've always done politics in Alberta.

As for Gibson, he knows the drill. He's been skidded by Alberta Conservatives before, the last time in 2009 when the Progressive Conservatives declined to renew his contract as chief electoral officer for taking his duties too seriously for their tastes.

Unfortunately for Kenney, early on Gibson or someone on his staff alerted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a parallel investigation by the federal police force of voter fraud during the leadership race is continuing.

There is nothing certain UCP insiders can do about that except cross their fingers, lawyer up, and plot the creation of a provincial police force to replace the RCMP. Not that anyone would dare to suggest that ... oh, wait!

Meanwhile, lost in the smoke and mirrors, other bad stuff

Meanwhile, while everyone focused on the preparation of Gibson for the skids, there are other goodies in Bill 22. Among them:

  • It will allow political parties to merge -- specifically, the UCP and the old Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties, which the UCP kept around on the books while they figured out how to get the substantial sums of cash held by PC constituency associations into the UCP's coffers. The question mainstream reporters should be asking is this: will the UCP pay off the PCs' outstanding debts?
  • Transfer of the investments in the better-performing Alberta Teachers' Retirement Fund to the Crown-owned Alberta Investment Management Corp., better known as AIMCo, which could open the door to government fingers dipping into teachers' retirement savings.
  • Reversing the long-promised and only recently delivered pension independence of such public-sector plans as the Local Authorities Pension Plan and the Public Service Pension Plan, a possible first step toward dismantling defined-benefit pension plans for public employees, a longtime goal of the UCP's corporate backers.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

 Image: Ian Jackson/Premier of Alberta/Flickr

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