Alberta premier spars with Opposition leader over firing of election watchdog

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney clashed with the Opposition NDP on his first day back in the legislature since his government fired the election commissioner who was investigating Kenney's United Conservative Party.

"Our Constitution is founded on the rule of law, and (Kenney) is now the absolute textbook case of what it looks like when you break the rule of law," NDP Leader Rachel Notley said during question period Monday.

Kenney was on a trade mission in Texas last week when his government introduced, debated, and passed an omnibus bill that included the firing of election commissioner Lorne Gibson.

Gibson had issued more than $200,000 in fines tied to fundraising violations in the 2017 UCP leadership race, which was won by Kenney before he was elected premier this year.

The RCMP has been conducting a separate investigation into whether voter ID fraud was committed during the leadership campaign.

The bill moved rapidly thorough the house. The government invoked time limits on all three stages of debate. It was signed into law on Friday.

Kenney looked at his notes, chatted with ministers beside him and waved to people in the gallery during Notley's attacks on Monday. He told the house she was wrong and that the bill is about streamlining government.

Notley is still upset she lost the provincial election in April, he said.

"We are keeping our word to consolidate redundant agencies, boards and commissions, and the position we took (in Opposition) consistently opposed two separate election bureaucracies."

The new legislation restores the role of an election commissioner, who investigates breaches of election laws, but under the auspices of chief electoral officer Glen Resler.

Resler's office has said that all investigations will continue.

The NDP made last-ditch attempts to stop the bill, including asking ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler to rule the entire UCP caucus was in a conflict of interest and shouldn't vote on it.

Trussler wrote back to say she would need more information to investigate. But she did urge legislature members who have been questioned by the RCMP or the election commissioner to tread carefully.

The NDP also asked Mitchell not to sign the bill on the grounds the government was acting unlawfully, but she refused.

Kenney accused Notley on Monday of abusing democratic norms by asking Mitchell to step outside her traditional role.

"The NDP leader is just reaching beyond the point of desperation now," he said.

"She was seeking to break the Constitution of Canada by encouraging the lieutenant-governor to ignore the democratic will of the elected people of Alberta."

Debate over the bill was heated.

Notley was ordered out of the chamber last Tuesday by Speaker Nathan Cooper after she accused government house leader Jason Nixon of misleading the house by saying the bill propose firing anyone.

Alleging a fellow member is misleading the house is a rule violation. And, after being kicked out, a member by tradition must apologize before being allowed back.

Notley returned to the house Monday with some contrition, but no apology.

"I used unparliamentary language when I said the house leader was misleading the house," Notley told Cooper.

"While I retain my position that the house leader was incorrect when he suggested Bill 22 did not fire anyone, I respect the rules and traditions of this chamber and as such I withdraw my comment."

Cooper accepted Notley's statement and she was allowed to stay.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2019.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press