Redford 'frightened' by Wildrose view of conscience rights
The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, April 4, 2012 6:49PM EDT
EDMONTON - Alberta Wildrose party Leader Danielle Smith won't say where she stands on whether public workers should be allowed to opt out of marrying gay couples or performing abortions.
Asked by reporters about the issue Wednesday, Smith said she would set up a special court to decide.
Her rival, Premier Alison Redford, said the comments today left her "frightened" for Albertans, suggesting that support of so-called conscience rights is a policy position the Wildrose had hoped to keep quiet.
"I was very frightened to hear the discussion today, and I've been quite frightened to hear the development of that in the last month," Redford told reporters on a campaign stop in Calgary.
"My sense is the Wildrose hadn't been talking about that even though it was part of their policy platform."
Conscience rights are hotly disputed issues in other jurisdictions.
They tend to involve doctors, nurses and health workers refusing to perform or counsel for procedures they have moral objections to, such as abortions, sterilizations or birth control. There have also been civil commissioners opting out of marrying gay couples.
Last year, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld the principle that those sworn to carry out certain tasks cannot unilaterally pick and choose which parts of their job they will perform. That case involved a marriage commissioner refusing to perform same-sex marriages because of his religious beliefs.
Smith said the issue is about competing rights and is one that needs to be handled by a judge.
"We want to set up a separate division of the provincial court to deal with these exact kind of complaints, so that real courts, and real lawyers with real rules of evidence would be able to decide them," Smith said at a campaign stop at a north Edmonton college.
"If we do that, then everybody's rights would be protected."
Smith declined to speak to "hypotheticals."
"All we're doing is providing a process," she said.
She twice deflected questions on her personal beliefs on conscience rights.
"I'll tell you where I stand," she said finally. "I am fundamentally a populist. I fundamentally believe that Albertans should decide the direction of the province.
"What Albertans are telling me is they want to be able to see a venue where they have a balance of rights."
The policy is a softening of the line that Smith took last fall, when responding to a survey from the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association.
In the survey, Smith wrote: "The Wildrose will ensure conscience rights for marriage commissioners and health professionals.
"This would ensure the protection of personal expression for individuals, while also ensuring that personal beliefs are respected for all Albertans."
The news comes as recent polls suggest the Wildrose is ahead of Redford's Progressive Conservatives in the election campaign, which will see voters go to the polls April 23.
The Wildrose surge has seen it replace the Tories as the focus of attack.
In recent days other parties have challenged the Wildrose plan to rebate a portion of future oil and gas surpluses as part of an unrealistic spending and savings plan that cannot be accomplished without deep cuts to services.
Conscience rights is tightrope issue for the right-leaning Wildrose.
If Smith pushes too hard for conscience rights, she risks alienating moderates near the political centre whose support is needed for the Wildrose to form a majority government.
But if Smith pushes too hard against it, she risks angering grassroots members of her own party.
Redford said the issue is about dignity.
"I believe in a province where I certainly respect people's personal beliefs, but I believe in a province where we have to treat individuals with dignity and respect," she said.
"The foundation of our province is to ensure new Albertans that are coming to this province -- and all of the unique families in this province -- have the opportunity to know that when they're accessing services that they can trust that those services will be provided.
"When people take on professional responsibilities I expect them to be able to meet those professional responsibilities."
The Wildrose says conscience rights cases will be among those that will be heard by justices in a new Human Rights Division of the Alberta provincial court.
Anyone filing a complaint and needing legal aid will be referred to a roster of "human rights advocates."
These advocates will have specialized training in human rights law and be in good standing with the Law Society of Alberta.
The party promises to impose stricter penalties and remedies for violations of human rights laws, but hasn't yet specified what they would be.
The system would be funded with the $5 million currently used to run the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
The Wildrose says the commission will be scrapped, and its current policy book is scathing of the commission's work.
The book refers to the commission and its tribunals as "kangaroo courts where rights are pitted against each other and interpreted by individuals who are often unqualified to make judgments.
"We guarantee that the inalienable rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion are not unjustly overridden by those with pre-conceived agendas and an almost fanatical devotion to political correctness."