He might not be Alberta’s version of US Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who investigated President Trump. But he’ll do in a pinch.
His name is Lorne Gibson and he’s Alberta’s new Election Commissioner. You probably don’t recognize his name and might have only the foggiest notion about his title—but you nonetheless know of his work. He’s the person who asked the RCMP to investigate the 2017 United Conservative Party leadership race. Gibson didn’t call a news conference or issue a news release to announce the involvement of the RCMP. The news erupted thanks to a leak to the media.
Governments come and go, but officers of the legislature remain at their posts—our watchdogs on the comings and goings of the legislature.
It’s not Gibson’s job to create controversy or grab the spot-light. He is a watchdog, not an attack dog. He is an officer of the Alberta Legislature, as is the Auditor General, Chief Electoral Officer, Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ombudsman, Ethics Commissioner, Child and Youth Advocate and Public Interest Commissioner. Their job is to make sure government workers, elected officials and those who seek public office serve the public effectively, spend money properly and don’t enrich themselves unethically or shred documents illegally.
These officers are hired by the all-party Standing Committee on Legislative Offices and report not to the government of the day but to the legislature. This is a huge difference. By reporting to the legislature, the officers report to all MLAs collectively, whether government or opposition. Governments come and go, but the non-partisan officers of the legislature remain at their post, just as the civil service does. They are our watchdogs on the comings and goings of the legislature.
But at times the government of the day sees them as attack dogs. One prime example is Gibson himself, not because of his role as Election Commissioner in 2019 but because, interestingly enough, he was Alberta’s Chief Electoral Officer from 2006 to 2009. In that role, Gibson poked, prodded and embarrassed the Progressive Conservative government by pointing out serious shortcomings in how we hold our elections.
For example, the PC party—unbelievably—nominated the returning officers (the 87 people, one per electoral division, responsible for “ensuring that a fair and impartial election is conducted”) and the PC cabinet confirmed them. Having such key electoral positions controlled by a political party is the stuff of banana republics. In other provinces, a non-partisan chief electoral officer picks returning officers from the general population based on skill and merit.
After the 2008 Alberta election, Gibson issued a report on improving our electoral system with 182 recommendations. He was fired by the government for his troubles. Technically, his contract wasn’t renewed by the all-party Standing Committee on Legislative Offices. But of the 11 members on the committee, all eight Conservatives voted to let him go; the three opposition members voted to keep him.
In 2010, despite its passive-aggressive dismissal of Gibson, the PC government accepted a majority of his suggestions and packaged them into the Election Statutes Amendment Act.
Gibson is not the only legislative officer who has over the years had the courage to speak truth to power. As the Information and Privacy Commissioner from 2002 to 2012, Frank Work was something of a democratic midwife, helping deliver the Alberta government into the 21st century of transparency and openness, all the while reminding politicians and bureaucrats that, “information does not belong to government; it belongs to the people who elected you, and they deserve to know what you are doing and how you are doing it.”
Fred Dunn, Auditor General from 2002 to 2010, became more outspoken when he thought the government wasn’t paying attention to his audits. His advice to other officers: “Stick to the legislation and remember you work for all members of the legislature. Sometimes when the going gets tough you’ve got to stick to your principles. Don’t be shy and don’t back down.”
Not that the system is perfect. Because government members usually comprise a majority on the committee that oversees legislative officers, some officers have seemed more lap dog than watchdog. Meanwhile, Alberta’s Election Commissioner isn’t required to make a report when issuing fines against people he deems to have broken election finance rules. I found it irritatingly insufficient when, after launching an investigation into the 2017 UCP leadership race, Gibson began to issue fines with little explanation beyond that people had donated money that wasn’t theirs to a leadership campaign.
Then again, Gibson and his legislative officer counterparts are limited by their mandates and by the rule of due process. While imperfect, the system works to keep a keen and dispassionate eye on government and MLAs—and that should provide you with some consolation no matter what you think of the results of the 2019 provincial election.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.