If the gong show that erupted yesterday over the Alberta Progressive Conservative government's bungled effort to pander to its troglodytic social conservative faction by roadblocking LGBTQ students' rights illustrates anything, it is that Premier Jim Prentice is not the political superman we imagined, before whom all must bow.
It also shows that the famed dictum "a week is a long time in politics" is profoundly true here in Alberta, just as it is the United Kingdom where Labour prime minister Harold Wilson is said to have coined it in the 1970s.
Just a week ago, Prentice stood astride Alberta like a colossus, hands on his hips, master of all he surveyed.
But the key lesson to be drawn from this is that the premier has blown this opportunity to get things right on a key social issue that enjoys significant popular support -- his first major blunder since he was entrusted with the province's top political job.
Maybe he still holds most of the cards, but this brouhaha reveals the premier is just another politician who puts his pants on one leg at a time … backwards.
Surely his government's obvious and unpopular mishandling of this file will breathe new life into an opposition that only a week ago, bereft of two floor-crossing MLAs successfully wooed by Prentice, appeared to be on the ropes and ready to surrender to another half century of the incompetent Tory juggernaut.
Nevertheless, thanks to his spineless Tory caucus, Prentice managed to win the scrap in the Legislature with ease. Only former leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk, already sent to Coventry because of his role as one of Alison Redford's senior ministers, had the intestinal fortitude to stand up with some members of the Opposition and vote against the government’s hastily scribbled Bill 10, which passed second reading in the afternoon by 42 to 10.
Prentice left the unseemly maneuver of using the vote on Bill 10 to sideline Bill 202, the private member’s bill proposed by Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, to his minions. He was in Quebec trying without apparent success to sell his skeptical Quebecois counterpart on the merits of taking all the risk and none of the benefits from a pipeline full of bitumen running through the province on its way to New Brunswick.
Blakeman's bill would have required schools to support gay-straight alliances under their roofs if students concluded they were necessary. This drove social conservatives in the PC caucus batty, hoping, as they are, to win back the rural Alberta so-con vote from the Wildrose Party.
Prentice's Solomonic solution to this dilemma was to suggest without evidence Blakeman's bill somehow violated the "rights" of some parents and school boards. As a result, he had government lawyers pencil Bill 10 onto a napkin from the Legislative coffee shop over the weekend and rush it upstairs to the Legislature.
Prentice gave the humiliating job of introducing Bill 10 and claiming it does everything Bill 202 does plus is sensitive to parents "rights" to Sandra Jansen, the PC MLA for Calgary-North West who has spoken passionately in the past in defence of GSAs.
This, of course, is baloney, as Jansen most certainly knows. While the government bill gives children a theoretical right to challenge a school that denies their wish to form a GSA in court, what kid has the resources or the know-how to finance and organize such a legal appeal?
Mind you, any law scratched together this quickly is in danger of collapsing if it ever does come under the scrutiny of a court.
Even the normally supportive Edmonton Journal published a story by a columnist calling the "stink bomb of a bill" Orwellian in title -- stating its goal as "to protect our children" is the opposite of what it will actually do -- and concluding it amounts to an invitation to bullying and an effort to keep children in ignorance.
"It seems much more designed to protect children from the knowledge that homosexuality exists," sneered columnist Paula Simons. "This gross hypocrisy of pretending to protect our children, all the while shoving them back into the closet as fast as possible, is so absurd, and so offensive, it almost beggars description."
Meanwhile, however, in a disturbing precedent, Bill 10 also manages to entrench the notion of "parental rights" as a legal concept deeper in Alberta law.
"Parental rights" is code for laws inspired by the American religious right designed to weaken the curriculum for all children, enable sexuality and AIDS education to be censored or blocked outright, and pave the way for school voucher programs that divert money from public to private religious schools.
It first wormed its way into Alberta's Human Rights Act in premier Ed Stelmach's Bill 44 in 2009, championed by Ted Morton, the former finance minister and aspirant for the premier"s job.
Prentice Government Education Minister Gordon Dirks, a former evangelical pastor with strong social conservative views, cast the new powers given to parents who share his views as benign and reasonable, telling the Calgary Sun that "underneath this legislation, (parents) have an opportunity to express their opinion and to be heard and if they don"t agree, to appeal."
The likely true meaning of this, however, is that parents with extreme religious views will now will have the option of using the courts to demand changes not only to their child"s education, but to yours.
That's the Trojan Horse. In the short term, however, the worst harm inflicted by Bill 10 will be that, practically speaking, it will make it impossible some places for vulnerable young people to form gay-straight alliances in a safe environment if their principal, or their principal’s bosses at a school board, want to make them go away.
That will mean more bullying, more bigotry and more suicides.
I"m going to give the last word on this tonight to Simons: "Goodness knows what deals cabinet moderates like Heather Klimchuk and Stephen Khan will have to make with their own consciences to support this legislation," she commented.
Simons picked Klimchuk, the MLA for Edmonton-Glenora, and Khan, MLA for St. Albert, I am sure, because she knows them to be decent people who ought to know better than participate in a spiteful charade like this.
She concluded: "But that’s clearly the price Jim Prentice is demanding of his new caucus -- to sell a little piece of their souls to stay part of the frat that is Team Tory."
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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