Jason Kenney, campaigning in Edmonton with MLAs and candidates serving as a backdrop (Photo: Screenshot of video).

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 Mr. 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.”

The actual Mandrake the Magician, back in the day (Photo: CBC).

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Cameron Wilson, political action director of the “Wilberforce project,” formerly Alberta Pro-Life (Photo: Wilberforce Project).

Then again, maybe not. No doubt about it, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

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  1. All that ongoing commenting about lack of policy, not in in the Post Pravdas of course where everything Kenney says is always great, but elsewhere like the internet where people now increasingly turn to get critical thought and news due to their diminishing presence in newspapers, must have rattled Kenney a little bit. He now seems to be trying to make quite a show of having some policy, after ignoring it for so long.

    Some things like the farm safety bill repeal and the carbon tax repeal are rehashed versions of what he has already said long ago, so I don’t think should technically count as news at this point. Of course he has never really explained how Alberta would be better off when the Provincial carbon tax is automatically replaced by the Federal one. Those motorists expecting great savings will quickly be disappointed but of course that is after the election and Kenney’e recall threshold is fairly high.

    I think the bromance between Kenney and Ford is a bit forced. I can see the former alleged drug dealer being a real **** disturber and his portrayal of being a populist is more convincing. I am fairly sure Kenney did not inhale in high school and would have stayed miles away from a character like Ford back then. I suspect their current friendship is a transitory one based on political convenience.

    I see some of Kenney’s promises like the ones on recall going the way of his grassroots guarantee or the dodo bird, but I suspect he will allow Team Wilberforce some free reign to reduce access to choice under the guise of free votes on matters of conscience, while Kenney pretends to be neutral and above the fray.

    I think these little nuggets are to some extent a distraction to keep people from looking at his economic policy which remains incredibly vague. Exactly what and how much does he plan to cut?

  2. I really can’t imagine a UCP minion not voting the same way JK does on a ‘free’ vote. If the anti-abortion majority of the caucus, including JK, decides to support a motion that makes abortion a bit more difficult, I simply don’t trust Kenney not to have some kind of backlash for someone who votes otherwise.

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