Gibson affair sends terrible message


When the chief electoral officer criticizes government and loses his job, what are other officers to think?


Thursday morning, Finance Minister Iris Evans summoned local reporters to the legislature media room to announce Alberta was entering a recession.

Evans told the assembled media that her government was now predicting the loss of 15,000 jobs in Alberta in 2009, an unemployment rate of 5.8 per cent, and a two-per-cent shrinkage of the economy. Roughly 50 jobs a day, said the minister, would be lost in Alberta over the next year.

It was grim news, coming as it did a day after the same minister revealed that Alberta was facing a budget deficit of more than $1 billion.

But this morning, while you ponder the serious economic news, I'd invite you to spare a moment's thought for the most recent guy in Alberta to lose his job: our chief electoral officer, Lorne Gibson.

Wednesday night, by a vote of 8-3, the members of the committee on legislative offices voted not to renew his appointment, which expires March 3.

Officially, Gibson was let go because of the poor organization of the March 2008 election. But while the election was a mess, with some 25 per cent of voters left off the voters list, Gibson made a very convincing case, in his presentation before the committee last week, that he was hamstrung by the provincial Conservative party -- that he was unable to conduct a proper enumeration because the Tories, the only ones with the power to nominate returning officers, refused to supply those officers in time for his office do the work.

In fairness, it must be said that the Tories on the committee weren't the only ones who questioned Gibson's performance. No one gave him a harder time than Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, who was frustrated by the way things in her riding of Edmonton Centre were run.

But whatever Gibson's failures as chief electoral officer may or may not have been, it looks as though he was dismissed because he repeatedly embarrassed the Stelmach government by writing reports filled with uncomfortable recommendations.

Recommendations as "radical" as the suggestion that returning officers should be hired on a non-partisan basis, based on ability, not PC membership. Or the suggestion that the Chief Electoral Officer, rather than Alberta Justice, have the power to prosecute offences under the Elections Act.

Certainly, Gibson sees his dismissal as politically motivated.

"As you can appreciate, this is a bit of a surprise for me. It's a bit of a blow," Gibson told the Calgary Herald late Wednesday night, when the paper informed him he'd been dismissed.

"There's a lot of changes that need to be made in Alberta to bring the legislation in the way elections are run up to the standards in the rest of the country."

"I am an independent officer of the legislative assembly and I see that as my role. ... I took that role on seriously and I guess as an independent officer I wouldn't expect that there'd be reprisals for doing your job."

Poisoned relationship

In the assembly Thursday, government house leader David Hancock went on -- at great length -- to insist that the government had not fired Gibson, that he was released by an all-party legislative committee, not the Conservatives.

That's technically correct. Still, the fact is, all eight members of the committee who voted to axe Gibson were dutiful Tory MLAs, and all three members who voted to renew Gibson's contract were members of the opposition. For the Stelmach government to pretend it wasn't the Conservatives who dismissed Gibson is risible.

Now there may actually be a case to be made that, pragmatically speaking, Gibson ought not to have been reappointed. It could be, given how poisoned relationships between his office and the legislative offices committee had become, that appointing him to another term might have been an error in judgment. Gibson, after all, wasn't fired. Legally speaking, his appointment had run out, and the committee didn't need cause not to renew him.

The problem the Tories face now is one of optics. It looks bad that the party was in charge of rounding up the returning officers in the first place. It looks bad that Alberta Justice has failed to lay charges in any of the 19 cases of campaign finance violations identified by Gibson's office. And now, it looks bad that the CEO has been shown the door, just weeks after the release of his critical annual report.

The sequence of events sends a terrible message to other independent legislative officers, such as the auditor general, the information and privacy commissioner, the ethics commissioner and the ombudsman. Are they to understand that they too might lose their appointments if they criticize and embarrass the government?

Even the more politically canny Tory MLAs see the problem, admitting the entire affair makes them look bad.

The best way now for the Conservatives to fix this mess would be to honour Gibson's legacy by accepting, and acting upon, some of his most important recommendations for change.

This isn't an issue of one man's job. It's an issue of democracy -- for all Albertans.


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