Alberta's ethics commissioner will suspend investigations into provincial politicians during future election periods if proposed legislation becomes law.
A bill tabled by Justice Minister Mickey Amery Thursday proposes updating several pieces of justice legislation, including a change that would suspend investigations by the ethics commissioner during the period leading up to a general election.
"Voters are entitled to proceed during an election without undue influence. These amendments help eliminate some of those influences," Amery said.
Amery said he doesn't believe the change will result in important information being kept back from voters because he says there are other mechanisms to keep governments accountable to the public.
The minister said the proposed change was prompted by a recommendation from Alberta ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler, who pointed to similar Ontario legislation that sees investigations paused from when the writs are issued for a general election until the polls close and the votes are counted.
Alberta Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler made a reccomendation that ethics investigations be suspended during election periods. (Alberta Legislature)
Trussler recommended that the legislative assembly consider the change in her May 2023 report in which she found that Premier Danielle Smith had contravened the Conflicts of Interest Act during interactions with the minister of justice in relation to criminal charges faced by Calgary street preacher Artur Pawlowski.
"Not having such a provision puts the Ethics Commissioner and the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in an extremely difficult position with respect to the timing and release of any report," Trussler wrote.
Her report was released on May 18, just 11 days before Alberta held its general election when Smith and the United Conservative Party went on to recapture a majority government.
Trussler's findings followed an investigation that began on March 31 after a member of the public asked if there were ongoing investigations into whether Smith pressured cabinet members or employees of the government in relation to the Coutts border blockade.
The complaint followed a January CBC news story about the premier's office contacting Crown prosecutors by email about COVID-related prosecutions.
Trussler wrote that she found no evidence of emails, and CBC has since updated its reporting.
'Doesn't add up'
The proposal to suspend ethics investigations during elections is puzzling, says University of British Columbia political scientist Max Cameron.
"It looks like the premier has got herself into trouble around conflict of interest and the solution is, well, we're not going to have conflict of interest investigations during an election," Cameron said.
"It just doesn't sort of seem to add up."
Cameron said he also thinks it's odd that the commissioner herself made the recommendation at the end of a report where an investigation during an election period ended up finding that a conflict of interest occurred.
He said that while it's important for ethics commissioners to be politically sensitive, they ought to be able to use discretion about whether or not it makes sense to proceed with an investigation or to release a report.
"You know elections are short, right? If you don't want to release a report in the middle of an election, you hold off on doing that. I just don't get that. It just seems, to me, very strange," Cameron said.
Earlier this week, a legislative committee voted to replace both Trussler and the province's chief electoral officer, Glen Resler. The standing committee on legislative officers voted to establish selection committees to replace each position.
Both non-partisan positions have contracts that expire in May 2024, and Amery said Thursday that Trussler is welcome to apply for the job again.