United Conservative Party Leadership candidate Doug Schweitzer at his official Campaign Kick-off. Tuesday June 6, 2017 in Calgary, AB.
Dean Pilling / Postmedia
You could title this column Lessons on Turning a Simple Problem into a Bigger Controversy.It can be a tricky skill to master, but just a month into its mandate, the Kenney government is already shooting toward the advanced class, with a couple of ministers leading the way.Those top students include Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer for an awkward refusal to acknowledge the need for a special prosecutor to oversee investigations into the UCP leadership scandal.And Health Minister Tyler Shandro for a bizarre pattern of obfuscation on what his ministry is doing around the issue of conversion therapy.To be sure, both issues are political minefields the new UCP government would prefer to avoid. But the way in which both rookie ministers have handled the controversies, by refusing to answer questions with anything but tightly scripted talking points — likely ordered by the premier’s office — has worked only to light fuses rather than smother them.In many ways, the more serious of these controversies is the one now on Schweitzer’s desk regarding the UCP leadership race from 2017.Much to the government’s relief, the case has faded somewhat from the news cycle since the election, but Albertans shouldn’t be fooled. This is a scandal still unfolding and remains a full-blown worry for Premier Jason Kenney and his party.For those who need a refresher, there have been a number of disturbing revelations about the case in recent months.Despite repeated denials from Kenney, emails have surfaced showing there was an unusually high level of strategic co-ordination between his campaign and the alleged “kamikaze” campaign of Jeff Callaway.An astounding $71,000 in fines have now been levied against people involved with the Callaway campaign, mostly for alleged efforts to hide how the campaign was funded.And investigations by CBC and other outlets have indicated the UCP’s electronic balloting process was likely plagued by voter fraud.How far all of this went and how much ties back to Kenney are questions still to be answered, but we know the RCMP is currently investigating at least some of these threads, or perhaps all of them.Then this week we learned that Schweitzer was himself interviewed by the RCMP in regards to the UCP leadership race. You may remember he was a candidate in that race and at one point raised concerns about voting procedures.Given that latest development, it’s hard to imagine a more obvious scenario for a special prosecutor to be brought in from another jurisdiction to oversee the probe.Presumably, Schweitzer’s candidate experience was the subject of his 30-minute interview with Mounties, and I’m inclined to believe that he is not himself under investigation.But it would also be a mistake to take his word for it. That’s not how criminal investigations work.Someone who is at all involved in the probe, however tangentially, should not be in a position to exert any influence over it, even if he intends never to use that power.That’s simple logic to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest, and Schweitzer has a simple solution available by removing himself from the equation.This precept is important at all times in justice matters, but takes on an especially dramatic tenor when an investigation is centred on an alleged desecration of the democratic process from the ruling party.Yet the government and the minister have refused to budge on a special prosecutor.“The RCMP are conducting an independent investigation,” Schweitzer responded again and again, using a line that seemed to deliberately miss the point.“There is independence of the police in this province. … It would be inappropriate for me to comment further.”The smoke conjuring was so obvious, the talking points so repetitive, it was hard not to wonder if Schweitzer was getting his marching orders from a higher authority, which would be troubling.Albertans will note that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in a fight for his job largely because of his office’s alleged interference with the country’s attorney general.We can only hope that isn’t now occurring in Alberta, and that our top justice official has complete freedom to act as he sees fit.As for the NDP, they’ve been happy to blast away the issue, but frankly, they screwed up, too. The Notley government should have appointed a special prosecutor back in March when we learned the RCMP was involved, but instead ploughed straight into the election.Nonetheless, now that the ball is in the UCP’s court, the refusal to hand this to more independent oversight has only deepened an impression the new government has something to hide.As for Shandro’s handling of the conversion therapy file, I don’t have space to get into all the details, but there is a similar pattern at play.While it’s reassuring to hear Shandro say his government opposes the harmful practice, his frustrating opaqueness this week on the fate of an NDP-created working group has been counterproductive to that message.This again smells like the scripted handiwork of a nervous premier’s office, but it’s hard to see how the strategy accomplishes anything but make the government look incoherent and incompetent.For anyone needing lessons on how to make a bad situation worse, they need look no further than the UCP’s performance this email@example.com/keithgerein