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Conscience rights are Charter rightsConscience rights are Charter rights

Conscience rights are Charter rights

According to a Calgary Herald-Edmonton Journal poll reported in today's National Post, Smith and Wildrose have lost the impressive lead they held in the first week of campaigning. They are said to be tied in popular support with the governing Progressive Conservative party. Premier Alison Redford last week attacked the Wildrose platform for promising to protect conscience rights by letting health care professionals and marriage commissioners go to court for legal exemptions from, say, performing abortions, dispensing contraceptives, or officiating at same-sex weddings.

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Topics: Culture, Justice
Conscience rights are Charter rights April 10, 2012  |  By Peter Stockland
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Have Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith's in-born libertarian instincts cost her a majority government in the Alberta election?

According to a Calgary Herald-Edmonton Journal poll reported in today's National Post, Smith and Wildrose have lost the impressive lead they held in the first week of campaigning. They are said to be tied in popular support with the governing Progressive Conservative party.

Reporter Darcy Henton speculates in the Post story that the rise in Tory fortunes, or the slide for Wildrose, has come after "so-called conscience rights" became an issue on the campaign trail.

Premier Alison Redford last week attacked the Wildrose platform for promising to protect conscience rights by letting health care professionals and marriage commissioners go to court for legal exemptions from, say, performing abortions, dispensing contraceptives, or officiating at same-sex weddings.

Redford called the platform promise "frightening" and unfit for the Alberta she wants to live in. Smith brushed off the matter by accusing the premier of typical liberal scaremongering.

The casual dismissal was a serious mistake. Having worked with Smith many years ago, and having watched her stellar career path ever since, I would be willing to wear a Toronto Maple Leaf jersey for a week if I am wrong on this point: Smith's iron-clad libertarian convictions caused the tactical misjudgment.

Few politicians have put their own beliefs aside in the service of a greater good to the degree that Smith has in balancing her libertarianism with openness toward what the thinker Phillip Blond calls social conservationists.

She is the first to acknowledge, however, that she doesn't really "get" social conservation. Tenacious protection of the moral foundations of society is not something that makes her want to put on the boxing gloves. Her reflexes respond to the transactional, the contractual, the invisibly handed.

She gave the back of the hand to Redford's assault of conscience rights, in all probability, because she does not fully grasp why those rights are so important to social conservationists.

Someone who did understand their importance would have immediately gone on the offensive by reminding the premier over and over at every whistle stop that conscience rights are Charter rights.

Every speech would end with a rhetorical question as to whether the premier of Alberta is "frightened" by the Charter's section 2(a) protection of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. It would demand to know how Redford, the great and good Red Tory protégé of Joe Clark, thinks abiding by the clear wording of the Charter would make Alberta an unfit place to live.

Social conservationists know intuitively there is nothing "so-called" about conscience rights. They are the first of the fundamental rights enumerated in the Charter, bound together with religious freedom, because they are the sine qua non of protection from State coercion and of the fulfillment of personal self-identification.

No transaction, no contract, no invisible market hand can usurp the primacy of conscience, properly formed, in protecting our ability to live our lives in conformity with what is right. Conscience rights are, in fact, the freedom and the limitation on government that libertarians themselves claim to crave.

All is not lost, however, even if it proves true that Smith's libertarian proclivities have produced a public reaction that costs her a majority. I have long believed that a term as Opposition leader would best prepare her to lead Alberta with the largeness of a Peter Lougheed or similar iconic political figure.

A natural born libertarian, Smith is also a genetically gifted apprentice. It was said of Margaret Thatcher, "The lady's not for turning." For Smith, that could be re-phrased as: "The lady's all for learning." Win or lose, learn she will.

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