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First reading of Bill 207 reveals zero UCP votes for reproductive rights

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Political scientist Duane Bratt says Bill 207 shows the UCP is more like the Wildrose Party than the old Progressive Conservatives. Image: David J. Climenhaga

Here are two important statistics about the United Conservative Party's Bill 207, the Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act, which was introduced in the Alberta legislature yesterday …

Just a minute, you say, Bill 207 is a private member's bill, brought forward by Peace River UCP MLA Dan Williams, not a government bill! How dare you suggest otherwise?

The answer, as is so often the case in politics, is in the numbers:

Number of UCP members in the house when Bill 207 received first reading: 36.

Number of UCP members who voted in favour of Bill 207: 36.

The conclusion one is tempted to draw from this, naturally, is that this is a private member's bill in name only. For all practical purposes, it appears to be a government bill and, as such, a reflection of the Kenney government's true social conservative agenda.

In addition, it strongly suggests the number of UCP MLAs not committed to undermining women's reproductive rights -- which as was argued in this space yesterday is the purpose of this bill -- is zero. Or, at least, it was yesterday.

There is an argument to be made, of course, that this is not necessarily the case. First reading in parliamentary tradition is merely the formal introduction of a bill. The hard debate -- and the hard work -- takes place at second and third reading.

And once upon a time, parliamentarians who opposed a bill would sometimes vote for it on first reading, although that's a convention rapidly evanescing. Yesterday, all 15 members of the NDP in the house voted nay to what really should be called the Conscience Rights (Dogwhistlers) Protection Act.

So we shall see, but don't hold your breath that UCP members who know perfectly well what the true purpose of this legislation is -- to wedge open the door to more restrictions on reproductive rights -- will not be cowed into silence by their party's substantial "pro-life" caucus, of which, as is well known, Premier Jason Kenney is a charter member.

One apparent impact of the bill will be to give Alberta's many Roman-Catholic-Church-owned but publicly funded hospitals the option of opting out of medical services of which they disapprove on theological grounds. "No action lies, nor may be commenced nor maintained, against a health-care provider or religious health-care organization in respect of a decision that they, or their employees, made to not provide a health-care service to an individual that is based on their conscientious beliefs," says Section 7.

Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt argued on social media yesterday that Bill 207 suggests "the UCP resembles the old Wildrose party more than the old Progressive Conservatives," pointing to a 2012 news story in which Wildrose leader Danielle Smith put forward a policy essentially identical to Williams' bill.

True enough, but it's important to remember that not only is the UCP as led by Kenney quite unlike the old PCs, but it is not exactly a clone of the Wildrose Party either.

Both parties were on the receiving end of what has been described many times in this space as a double-reverse hostile takeover -- in which Kenney first took over the PC party, vulnerable while still reeling from its loss in 2015 to the NDP, and then used PCs as a platform to take over the Wildrose party where, with a little help from a kamikaze campaign, he made swift work of Wildrose leader Brian Jean.

What has resulted is Kenney's own creation, quite different from both, not least in the personality cult around its leader and its lack of commitment to democratic values.

If you're looking for a governing party from Alberta history that's much more like the UCP than either the PCs or the Wildrose, it would be the Social Credit party led by William "Bible Bill" Aberhart, powered by crackpot economic notions, conspiracy theories and religious fundamentalism.

That said, PC premier Alison Redford, who won the 2012 election despite Postmedia's effort shown clearly in the story highlighted by Bratt to push the Wildrosers to victory, was certainly right when she called the Wildrose policy frightening.

"I believe in a province where we have to treat individuals with dignity and respect," she said in 2012. "We have to live in a community where we respect diversity and we understand that everyone feels safe and included."

The same thing could be said today. Everybody understands the purpose of Bill 207 is the opposite, notwithstanding its disingenuous claim its goal is "to ensure regulatory bodies respect the rights of health-care providers under Section 2(a) of the charter…"

If the UCP wants to create certainty it is committed to the charter, how about it makes a firm promise never to use Section 33, the notwithstanding clause, to overcome a court ruling that its legislation violates the fundamental rights of a group of citizens?

We all know why a party led by Kenney will never do that.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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