Rachel Notley asks Lieutenant-Governor to block removal of election commissioner

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Rachel Notley asks Lieutenant-Governor to block removal of election commissioner

Ms. Notley acknowledged that her request was unusual, but said the situation called for extraordinary action.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

The leader of Alberta’s Opposition New Democrats has asked the Lieutenant-Governor to block legislation that would remove the province’s election commissioner, who has been investigating the United Conservative Party leadership race that elected Premier Jason Kenney.

Constitutional experts immediately panned former premier Rachel Notley’s request to Lieutenant-Governor Lois Mitchell on Tuesday, saying it runs counter to long-standing conventions and would politicize the Queen’s representative in the province.

Ms. Notley sent a letter to Ms. Mitchell during a raucous day in the provincial capital, in which she was ejected from the legislature after accusing the government of lying about why it was removing the commissioner.

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Ms. Notley acknowledged that her request was unusual, but said the situation called for extraordinary action.

“Yes, this is unorthodox and rare, but so, too, is what Jason Kenney is purporting to do with this bill,” Ms. Notley said in an interview. “This is a historic and unprecedented abuse of power to stop a quasi-judicial investigation into the breaking of laws by UCP operatives and insiders.”

A day earlier, the United Conservative government tabled legislation that would move the position of election commissioner, which is currently an independent office, into Elections Alberta. The legislation would immediately terminate the contract of commissioner Lorne Gibson.

Mr. Gibson has handed out more than $200,000 worth of fines in an investigation into allegations that UCP leadership candidate Jeff Callaway broke election finance laws to run a campaign designed to help Mr. Kenney. Both deny such an arrangement.

The government said the change won’t affect continuing investigations and has nothing to do with the UCP leadership investigation. The chief electoral officer is free to rehire Mr. Gibson, the government has said.

Kathy Brock, a political science professor at Queen’s University, said the power of either the Lieutenant-Governor or the Governor-General to refuse to sign legislation hasn’t been used in decades.

“It would be very unusual because, by convention, they’re expected to follow the advice of cabinet,” she said in an interview. “The answer instead should be found in the legislature. That would be a much more legitimate way to pursue this.”

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Eric Adams, who teaches law at the University of Alberta, said that while there have been historic cases of lieutenant-governors intervening, their role today is to sign legislation put in front of them.

“The lieutenant-governor is bound by constitutional convention to sign duly enacted legislation, whether there are policy disagreements or not,” he said. “Our constitutional rules are clear about the lieutenant-governor’s role.”

Prof. Adams also questioned whether it’s appropriate for an Opposition leader even to make such a request.

“To the extent that there are efforts to politicize that position, to engage that individual in partisan policy disagreement, it is, I think, ultimately unhelpful and can have long-term negative consequences.”

Ms. Mitchell’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mr. Gibson released a statement on Tuesday that said he was disappointed with the decision to remove him and expressed concern about the plan to eliminate the independent election commissioner.

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“I am concerned about the potential negative impacts on the independence of election administration and the real and perceived integrity of the election process,” the statement said. “Citizens of Alberta must have confidence and trust in the integrity of all aspects of the provincial electoral process, not just the casting and counting of ballots on election day.”

In addition to the election commissioner case, the RCMP is also investigating separate allegations of identity theft and voter fraud from the leadership vote. A prosecutor from outside Alberta has been assigned to that file.

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