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'Free votes' on 'matters of conscience' could be way for Jason Kenney to throttle reproductive rights

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Jason Kenney in 2013. Photo: michael_swan/Flickr

Last Thursday, presumably hoping to distract from the NDP's launch of an advertising campaign illuminating the dark side of Jason Kenney, the United Conservative Party leader announced a passel of policy ideas that would include significant changes to how the legislature operates.

Among Kenney's ideas were a ban on floor crossing by MLAs, statutory referenda on new taxes that would legally embed Alberta's perpetual austerity crises, campaign financing rules that better suit the UCP, and "free votes" for MLAs on "matters of conscience."

Kenney's cheerleaders at Postmedia naturally swiftly lauded his proposals as "real policy," which is true in a sense, although some points are merely aspirational whether or not embedded in law and others, like the floor-crossing ban and some of the election finance changes, are vulnerable to constitutional challenges.

As Kenney well understands, though, such technical niceties don't matter to his party's red-meat base, and, anyway, as a politician who boasts he and Ontario Premier Doug Ford finish each other's sentences and whose mentor and last leader was found in contempt of Parliament, there's always the Constitution's Notwithstanding Clause.

Several of these notions deserve a closer look than mainstream media is likely to give them, but this requires the opposition leader's package of proposals to be broken into digestible bits. This in turn may be difficult because, with an election looming, there is likely to be a tendentious announcement from Kenney almost every day, followed by more noisy cheering by Postmedia.

So let's just do what we can today and consider the idea of free votes for MLAs on matters of conscience.

On the face of it, this idea seems incongruous for a party leader who quick-marched his MLAs out of the legislature every time there was a vote on a bill to create protest-free bubble zones around abortion clinics rather than let them embarrass the UCP by voting with their consciences, and who quickly tossed his "Grassroots Guarantee" over the side the instant his social conservative allies introduced similarly potentially embarrassing policy about school Gay-Straight Alliances at a party conference.

Then again, maybe not. No doubt about it, Kenney is The Decider when he decides to be, and he seems able to exert remarkable control over his potentially fractious current caucus of Wildrose and Progressive Conservative holdovers.

Always remember, though, Kenney is known to support the social conservative agenda himself -- indeed, he's based his political career on it -- so there may be a strategy at work here.

It seemed odd back in May 2018 how quietly the UCP's large social conservative cadre accepted Kenney's decision to dump the Grassroots Guarantee during the so-called "policy conference" in Red Deer. Indeed, it disappeared in a puff of blue smoke faster than you could say "Mandrake the Magician"!

"I've always been clear that as leader I will consult broadly with Albertans outside of our party to develop a common-sense, mainstream platform to reignite our economy," Kenney said at the time. Never mind that such the policy motion was passed by nearly 60 per cent, he continued, "mandatory notification of participation in extracurricular clubs will not be part of that platform."

Now we know, thanks to Cameron Wilson, the blabbermouth political action director of the "Wilberforce Project," formerly somewhat more accurately known as Pro-Life Alberta, that Kenney has been tacitly allowing a stealth campaign to nominate anti-choice UCP candidates with the goal that "we will have the most pro-life legislature in decades, and maybe ever."

So when you hear that these MLAs would be allowed "free votes" on "matters of conscience," you need to remember that in social conservative circles the latter phrase is code for obstruction of women's reproductive rights and the rights of our LGBTQ fellow citizens to live free of bigotry and abuse.

In other words, it's a coded way of saying, "our divine notions trump your human rights."

We can't say, of course, that a deal was cut with this part of the UCP base. These things, after all, are done in secret. But it seems likely from the events unfolding before our eyes that something like this has happened, and it is easy to speculate on what the deal may be from the same evidence.

It is certainly true that a "free vote" on a "matter of conscience" would be an excellent way for a social-conservative-dominated caucus to begin to throttle access to reproductive rights and school protections for large swaths of Alberta's population. You wouldn't even need to discreetly whip such a vote, as the former Wildrose and PC MLAs meekly exiting the legislative chamber at Kenney's command last year obviously were.

This thought cannot easily be dismissed as mere paranoia or fear-mongering because we have seen the same strategy unfold in very similar ways in the United States, and it will continue there as long as the Republican Party is able to gerrymander its way to statehouse majorities across the flyover zone directly to our south.

As a closing thought, Alberta Health Services might want to ease off on its dispute with British Columbia, which has resulted in care in Alberta being denied to people from B.C.'s southeastern Kootenay Region who have traditionally relied on access to Calgary hospitals for major treatments closer to home than B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

After all, a lot of Alberta women may soon want to access hospitals in B.C. to exercise their increasingly theoretical reproductive rights if Kenney's social conservative allies can achieve their goals through a "free votes" strategy.

Of course, in such circumstances such Alberta sojourners may have to pay out of pocket anyway if the services they are accessing have been de-listed by a future government's right-to-life caucus.

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 Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: michael_swan/Flickr

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