Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"You Suck, Ref!"

Nation, I have watched with growing concern the tactics being used by the opposition parties and the scandal-starved media as relates to the province's Returning Officers.

The coverage by the Edmonton Sun was factually incorrect, as discussed more fully here. I expect that a retraction will be coming for the mis-attribution of Blake's comments. The CBC coverage of the Wojtaszek issue was disturbing for several reasons - also outlined in Blake's most recent post on the issue.

Now, I want to get this out of the way, right off the bat: I've met Allie Wojtaszek, and her husband Duncan. I think they're both stellar people, and I'm proud to call them friends (despite their inexplicable attachment to the perrennially under-achieving Calgary Flames). For that matter, I also know Robin Darsi of Calgary Currie, and consider HIM to be a friend. So there you have it - nothing I say on this issue is going to be relevant or unbiased - because I have chums who are affected, and can't possibly be unbiased.



The problem is, that's the allegation that the media and the opposition parties are making - that these returning officers with ties to the PC party can't POSSIBLY be unbiased, because they are current or former members of the PC Party.

The job of returning officer is important... it's one of the positions that has the most direct impact on how our votes are counted, which makes it an emotionally-charged issue. The merest WHISPER of something untoward going on in the counting room, and we're on our feet, screaming for blood at our possible disenfranchisement. But the way I see it, this issue is actually TWO issues, and the media can't seem to decide which one is more pressing (read: which one will sell more papers).

Issue 1: Are these people capable of performing a task which requires the utmost in discretion and unbiased judgement?

Issue 2: Are the PC's having Returning Officers appointed based on party loyalty, rather than ability?

Let's deal with these one at a time...

Issue 1: Are these people capable of performing a task which requires the utmost in discretion and unbiased judgement?

Answer: One would hope. Everyone's different - but they all take the same oath upon appointment to the position. It's very likely similar, if not identical, to the oath that *I* took when I entered the public service 4 years ago - an oath that I have never once broken, even though I blog under an assumed name. I can't be caught, and I *still* don't break the rules - because MOES (Mother Of Enlightened Savage) raised a truthful and honest person, who takes his Oath of Office VERY seriously.

The people who are hired as Returning Officers are, presumably, people of good character who are capable of putting aside their personal bias. Anyone who is politically informed has bias - we like that guy, we hate that policy... there is, I suspect, no such thing as a "politically informed person with no opinion on anything". That being said, the issue then becomes "can they put that bias aside, as they promised, to fulfill the requirements of the position?". Again, that's a character issue - I know in the case of the 2 R.O.'s that I know personally, the answer is a resounding "yes". Much is being made of the fact that in a tie (has there EVER been a tie?), the Returning Officer casts a ballot. "Not fair!", cries the opposition. "If they're Tory members, they'll vote for the Tory!". And if they're Liberal party members, they'll vote for the Liberal. No matter how they vote, you and I and every politically aware person in the province knows that riding is going to a judicial re-count, so what does it matter? If they were never appointed R.O., their vote STILL would have gone to their chosen party, and been counted. Are you going to accuse the judge overseeing the re-count of bias, as well?

Never mind - I'm afraid I already know the answer to that question.

The media are going hog wild with this story, prodded along by the "concerned and pensive" opposition parties, who "just want to make sure that everyone's vote is counted fairly"... and yet, neither Taft nor Mason is willing to say for the record that ANY wrong-doing has taken place. "It's the perception of bias that's the problem", they protest. But Taft and Mason know it doesn't matter if Robin Darsi or Rick Bell or Troy Wason or Larry Johnsrude is the returning officer - they're not going to win.

And that's WHY they're bringing this up - to save their own jobs.

Nation, the Returning Officer in each riding is essentially the electoral referee for that constituency: They apply the rules, and are expected to do so fairly. There are only 2 possible reasons to attack the credibility of a referee: FIRST, if they're doing an undeniably bad job. Like, Mick McGeough-esque (finally, something my Oilers-loving readers and my Flames-loving readers can agree on!). Taft and Mason both admit that this is not the case. SECOND, if they know they're going to lose, and they need to save face. Ron Wilson and John Tortorella come to mind. It's essentially reserving the right, after the game, to step up to the podium microphone and say "we lost the game, but those refs were lousy, they were calling things in favour of the home team all night...". Those speeches, clearly, have already been written for Taft and Mason. The fact that they and their handlers are continuing to push this issue to the forefront of the media (it's getting more attention than anyone's platforms or policy announcements) speaks volumes about their expectations for the election's eventual outcome: They're not accusing the R.O.'s of any wrongdoing so far, but getting the complaint on the record early gives them something to go back to after all is said and done, to complain about the process, save their own jobs with a "we was robbed" argument (and, in Taft's case, try to hold off Bronconnier in the process), and paint the Tories with yet another in a long line of patronage accusations. It's partisan political brinksmanship at its worst, and good people like Allie and Robin are paying the price.

Issue 2: Are the PC's having Returning Officers appointed based on party loyalty, rather than ability?

Answer: They'd better hope not, for their sake.

Nation, the reality is that the largest political party in this province is the one that's been in power for as long as half of us have been alive. It's got the power, it's got the leverage, and it's a big tent - which means that people who anywhere else would be Liberals and Conservatives, at each other's throat, are all part of the same big, happy (mostly) family, in the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Being the party in power has a way of calming you down when you're considering killing the bleeding heart commie/rednecked neo-con neanderthal behind you at the party AGM. If politically active people, folks who are members of political parties, are the ones who tend to want these jobs, then it makes sense that the majority of them are PC Party members... most Albertans who belong to a political party, belong to the PC's.

IF, however, the party leadership is hand-picking Returning Officers, or Tory loyalists are being appointed to these jobs ahead of more qualified people, then there will be (and SHOULD be) hell to pay. You can't discriminate against someone for this job based on their political views - only on their willingness to supress them as their position demands. Likewise, nobody should be hired to this job BECAUSE of their political views or affiliation (or, alternatively, because of their lack thereof).

If we're going to ban people who are or were members of parties, then who's next? Disqualify Jane Smith, because her husband works on a rig up North, so she'll OBVIOUSLY be biased against the Greens? Of course, it's not the obvious bias that the media is focusing on now, it's the PERCEPTION of bias... so John White, who complained at a Town Hall meeting in 1997 about hospital wait times can't do the job, because there's a perception he'll be anti-Tory?

What if we extend this type of vetting? People who have been drunk in the past, or who are married to alcoholics, can't have jobs as drivers? "They're not drinking on the job!", you'd say. "No, but the perception is that they MIGHT...". You can't deny someone a job driving a bus because they got drunk in their apartment one night in 2002 - as long as they promise not to get (or be) hammered on the job.

Homosexuals, or relatives of homosexuals, can't have jobs that put them in contact with Evangelical Christians? "They're not having gay sex at work!", goes the argument. "No, but our Evangelical Christian customers might PERCEIVE them as WANTING to have gay sex at work...". You can't deny someone a job at Starbucks because their overwhleming gay-ness might get into some prig's Frappucino - so long as they agree to the employee code of conduct that clearly states "no gay sex in the customer service area".


And you can't deny someone a job as a Returning Officer because they have personal political opinions - provided they swore the oath to be impartial.

Come ON, kids... at the end of the day, all of these Returning Officers took an oath to execute their duties impartially. Either you believe them, or you're calling them liars - and if it's option b), then stop beating around the bush, and say what you mean. That means you, Edmonton Journal. Sun Media. CBC. Allie Wojtaszek took an oath to keep her personal politics out of her workplace. If you think she's lying, then stop going through her Flickr albums, and have the guts to say so.

... or drop it, and talk about - oh, I don't know - the policies of the parties who want to run this province? Just an idea. But that almost sounds too much like work. Good thing us bloggers aren't real media.


Kirk Schmidt said...


First, I've not met Allie nor Duncan, but I have had a few email comms with Allie. From those conversations, as well as from other people who I know that know them, I'd trust Allie in the position of R.O.

That said, to paraphrase something Duceppe said in the debates for the 39th - it's not just about having not done something, but about not creating any perception that you've done something (this was in reference to the 'leak' about Liberal non-taxation of income trusts that was investigated by the RCMP).

So, I can see both sides of the argument on the issue. That said - the Speaker of the House of Commons, The Honourable Peter Miliken, is a Liberal. And, I firmly believe that he had the proper non-Liberal reasoning for voting with the second reading of the budget in 2005. That's why he was re-elected as Speaker in a Conservative government. The fact is, people who are sided with a party CAN fulfill their duties.

You're right - part of this is the process of how these people were chosen. If 20 people applied for the job, and 10 were affiliated with parties, and 10 were not, obviously the public sees that those latter 10 are probably better for it (even if they aren't personally). That said, R.O.s are hard to find, and yes, they tend to be politically engaged already, so partisan on some level.

The other thing is checks and balances. Obviously on a tie vote, it's the R.O.'s and the R.O.'s alone. However, when it comes to any other function of an R.O., there are processes to ensure that any bias is marginalized. If the counting of votes is your concern, send a scrutineer to watch the process. Each party is allowed to do it. If it's rejecting an application, while not the best thing to have to deal with, there is due process (and the media would jump on it fast, too).

Anonymous said...

You're applying the slippery slope argument. "If we eliminate people with these strong biases, what's to say we won't eliminate people with much lesser biases, until nobody is suitable." Unfortunately, it applies both ways. If we don't eliminate people with strong biases, what's to say that the candidates themselves can't be returning officers? Surely they'll act impartial in the judging, as that's what they're hired for, correct?

There is a place in the middle somewhere where the amount of percieved bias a person has -- the connections they have to one side or the other -- overwhelm their own good character.

For you, that point, that amount, is obviously much greater than it is for me and a good number of other people. So tell me, when would it be inappropriate for a person to serve as an RO? Can a candidate serve? Can their campaign manager? What about the candidate's spouse or son/daughter? How about the campaign manager's spouse? Obviously, these are people with vested interests. There is nothing saying (since they are entirely fictional people) that they would abuse the position, yet clearly it is inappropriate for at least some of these people (and I would say all of them) to be in control of voter registrations. Yet all the arguments you apply to your friends would apply equally to them.

So in this case, I think your own relationships with these people are in fact clouding your good judgement.

Enlightened Savage said...

Anon: Thank-you for your feed-back. I know that I am not without bias, and it's helpful for my readers to be reminded from time to time as well.

Elections Alberta, the regulatory body for Alberta's General Elections, has a document on their website entitled "Guidelines for the Selection of Returning Officers". I'd encourage everyone to check it out for themselves.

Among those prohibited from holding the job:
- Anyone engaging in political activity (this includes blogs, during the campaign and for a period afterwards)
- anyone providing financial support to a candidate or party (again, during and after the election)
- anyone not a resident elector from that riding
- anyone unable to treat all political parties equally (during the election)

If there's a problem with the rules, then the rules need to be changed. I agree, there's nothing in there that says you can't make the candidate's husband a Returning Officer - and maybe the prohibited list needs to get bigger. But for the media to not only pick apart these R.O.'s personal lives but to post photos and weblinks to their private lives, in an attempt to score a "gotchya!" moment - that's tabloid journalism at its worst.

If we need to fix the system, let's talk about that. But stop posting links for people's Facebook or Flickr profiles, first.

Anonymous said...

A risk with posting anything publically on the internet is that, well, the public may take an interest in it. The pictures and facebook profiles are relevant in this case because they provide documentary evidence of what's being asserted. That said, that Allie has now chosen to make them private should in no way lead people to think that she's trying to hide something, as it's perfectly reasonable for her to want to keep her private life private (he says posting anonymously) -- it's not part of the job, after all. So while I don't blame her for restricting access, neither do I blame the media for pointing out what was readily available to anybody who had a cursory interest in verifying the story.

As to the prohibted list needing to be made bigger, I'm not sure that's necessary. The last clause alone should be sufficent. What may be needed is an acknowledgement that a conflict of interest does not require there be illegitimate action, only that a reasonable person might believe such an illegitimate action has a reasonable chance of occurring. Those with any such conflicts of interest should either not participate, or take steps to ensure that any action they might take which could be considered in conflict with their interests is subject to verification by a non-conflicted party.

If you agree that the candidate or campaign manager's spouse should likely not be given the position of a returning officer, then surely you would have the same reservations about a close personal friend of the candidate? Or perhaps of the spouse of the leader of organization whose primary purpose is to campaign for a specific side? Under both of these conditions, Allie unfortunately seems to qualify. (As a side note, Allie's blog was available at least on the day she was hired as Returning Officer, as I chanced upon her announcement of it. Within that blog, of course, were all of her archives, including some that had a lot of political activity in them. There is an argument to be made there (though I'm not sure how strong of one) that this in itself constitutes engaging in political activty while a Returning Officer. To her credit, she locked it up shortly thereafter. I am hoping that it is not available to anybody currently, as with the archives present, that might still constitute political activity, even if it is only her friends and PC voters that have access to it.)

Again, this is not saying that anything improper has or will occur, but someone who does not know Allie personally would not be unreasonable in thinking there's a reasonable chance it might.

Remember elections are about trust. They keep society civil because it enables all those whose candidates aren't elected to trust that their guy really did lose -- that they are, in effect, outnumbered if things were to come to blows. Because of that, blows are avoided. Now, we've reached a point in this nation where even massive electoral fraud probably wouldn't lead neighbor to stand against neighbor, but that's the original impetus for elections over selecting leaders by force of arms.. and it's still valid and important to keep that in mind. If we lose that trust, then to a large extent, we've lost the purpose of the election.

Anonymous said...

I am afraid that you are on the wrong side of this one, Savage. To put my biases up-front, I am non-partisan and don't kow any of the individuals involved. I have, however, been involved in organizing an election process.

As Kirk said, the real issue here is perception of bias. How can people who have indicated an affiliation to one political party be trusted with a key role in the democratic process of selecting between that party and another one? Simply put, they cannot, regardless of their own personal integrity. The soundness of democracy can never rest on "just trust me", even if the person is in fact trustworthy as an individual.

This whole situation has been worsened today by the news on CBC radio that the list of RO's is generated by the Premier's office, not by Elections Alberta. Are there any political considerations that go into drawing up the list? I asked myself that same question recently when, before the election call, I happened to be in PC MLA's constituency office at the time that the office administrator and the MLA's campaign chairman compared notes on who the RO for the constituency should be. It certainly left me scratching me head. Only in Alberta.

Enlightened Savage said...

I want to thank everyone for the comments - keep them coming.

Ultimately, I think that the list of "recommended people" from the Premier's Office is a problem. In future, the Premier's Office should probably not submit a list of recommended candidates for the jobs. The final say on whether or not these people are hired, though, is up to the Chief Electoral Officer, who interviews the candidates on that list, and can either approve or reject them for the job.

The CEO approved these 83 Returning Officers. If there's a problem with them or a perception of Conflict of Interest, rather than blaming that fact on the Premier's Office, shouldn't we be placing the blame on the person who ultimately decided that these people were the right people for the job?

If Purolater gets my resume off of Workopolis, hires me, and it turns out I'm some lazy dirt-bag, it's not Workopolis' fault for tagging me as a "match" to what Purolater was looking for - it's the fault of the H.R. schmuck who hired me for letting me fall through the cracks.

IF we think people have been appointed to R.O. jobs who shouldn't have been, isn't the blame for that ultimately at the desk of the person who gets the final "yes or no" say on their appointment? That's not the Premier - that's the Chief Electoral Officer.

Kirk Schmidt said...

Elections Act (Alberta)

Section 9 concerns Appointment of Returning Officers

Section 12 contains the aforementioned 'Prohibition against political activity'

refill said...

Neither Kevin Taft nor Brian Mason has said that any of these individuals will not act honourably. I'm sure we all believe and hope that they will. It's the process that stinks, not the people.

It's crazy to have a system where the governing party submits a list of names, and the chief electoral officer is expected to rubber stamp it. Alberta's chief electoral officer has specifically called for an end to this practice. Electoral officials should be interviewed and hired without political input or interference.

Under that kind of system, some PC supporters will undoubtedly be hired. So, presumably, will others from the 54 percent of Albertans who voted against the PCs in the 2004 election. And nobody will be able to say they got their jobs through patronage.

If a controversy like this had come out when the federal Liberals were in power, pro-Tory bloggers would have (quite rightly) had a field day. Patronage carries a bad smell, no matter who's in charge.

The solution is simple. Ed, say that you trust the current returning officers to execute their duties faithfully, and ask your opponents to give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, it's too late to replace 40-odd returning officers. Then, promise to change the system before the next election.

calgarygrit said...

I'm surprised how Tories are trying to actually defend this one, considering how vocal they usually are about stuff like this at the federal level.

As it sits now, returning officers are being, in essence, picked by the local Tory candidate and riding association. Elections Alberta has asked that this change. The federal rules don't allow for this. Half the returning officers have strong tory ties. I really don't see how this can go on.

No one's saying they'll be biased. But the issues of perceived bias and patronage should be enough to overturn this. Plus, Stelmach's handling of this has been brutal since he said he had nothing to do with the appointments which, we now know, isn't true.

Anonymous said...

This issue continues to be the proverbial 'tempest in a teapot'!

Open Returning Officer posts have not exactly had applicants pounding down the doors. MLAs--and that includes all stripes--were encouraged to have individuals that they knew apply for them. They did. Last time I looked, there were more MLAs of one particular party than others, so contacts of those individual MLAs may just be the only one(s) who know about them. Or perhaps its the case that the breadth of candidates is just as narrow as every other job in this Province!