On the same afternoon in February, two political opponents held duelling news conferences. United Conservative Leader Jason Kenney was outlining part of his platform while the Alberta NDP launched a website called TheTruthAboutJasonKenney.
The website features stark black and white photos of Kenney, all-caps black and red text and six “truths” about Kenney. It links back to government hansards and news articles as far back as 1999, outlining his personal beliefs and past political decisions.
The third point reads: “Jason Kenney: a persistent and determined opponent of a woman’s right to choose…
“Jason Kenney has spent his entire career trying to restrict access to abortion and roll back women’s rights.”
Is this accurate? Would access to abortion change in Alberta under a UCP government?
What’s the allegation?
The website claims: “Thanks to Jason Kenney, a woman’s right to choose is in sudden and real peril in Alberta” and that “he and his party are already trying to restrict access to abortion in Alberta.”
It also outlines his pro-life history, personal beliefs and voting record as an MP in Ottawa, claiming “the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.”
What are the facts?
Since launching his first Alberta leadership campaign in 2016, Kenney has said he would not “bring forward legislative measures on abortion.”
The party made its stance even more clear in a statement to Global News last week. A UCP caucus spokesperson said “a United Conservative government under his leadership will not reopen this debate.”
Historically, Kenney has not shied away from his social conservative convictions and personal religious beliefs.
As an MP, while he voted pro-life and pro-family, the UCP stresses “he never championed limiting or eliminating abortion.”
“In my 20 years in Parliament, I haven’t given a speech about this, let alone proposed a motion or bill,” he told the CBC in 2016.
However, in 2012, Kenney went against then-prime minister Stephen Harper and supported a motion to set up a committee to study whether a fetus is a human being before the moment of birth. The motion was defeated by a vote of 203 to 91.
But he supported the former federal Conservative government’s decision not to introduce legislation regulating abortion.
What do experts say?
The distinction between not legislating an issue and not looking at it at all is an important one.
“It’s got to be absolutely clear — and it’s easy enough to do — just absolutely clear that this is not an issue that they are going to be enacting any kind of policy — whether it be legislation or otherwise — it’s not going to be something the party is going to address,” said Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University.
“They might even want to say: this is a matter of personal belief — some people support and oppose abortion — and they’re not going to take a public or political or governmental stand should they form the government one way or another.”
Abortion became legal across Canada in 1988, when the Supreme Court struck down abortion prohibition as unconstitutional. While that falls under federal jurisdiction, health care is a shared jurisdiction between federal and provincial governments.
“We see quite a bit of difference in policy around abortion from province to province,” Williams explained. “Some provinces don’t fund abortions in free-standing clinics; only in hospitals, others only provide abortions up to a certain point in a pregnancy and those who want to obtain abortions beyond that point have to go out of province.”
Policy therefore, not just provincial laws, can impact access to women’s health services.
“The provinces, for the most part, fund abortions but may not fund the travel costs for somebody who has to travel to obtain an abortion,” Williams said. “So there are some things a province could do — and could do, actually, without legislating.”
What else do I need to know?
The UCP is asserting it plans to focus on “jobs and the economy, not divisive social issues.”
“The only party consistently looking to reopen this divisive issue is the NDP, to distract from their failed record,” a UCP spokesperson said, referencing Bill 9.
The bill implemented a legal buffer zone (50 metres) around abortion clinics in Alberta to prevent staff and patients from being harassed by anti-abortion protesters. While Bill 9 passed, UCP MLAs walked out of the chamber en masse several times to avoid casting a vote.
“We know where Kenney stands on this issue and it sure isn’t on the side of Alberta women,” said Roari Richardson, provincial secretary for Alberta’s NDP.
“After his MLAs acknowledged that the issue of harassment was a problem for women in Alberta, he still forced them to hide in the hallway during votes on Bill 9.”
The UCP, meanwhile, have a much different interpretation of the walkout.
“Bill 9 was another obvious effort by a desperate NDP to distract attention away from their failed economic record and a much-criticized, debt-heavy budget introduced only a few weeks earlier,” a UCP spokesperson told Global News in an email. “If the NDP really believed this legislation was necessary, then why did they never raise it once before?”
WATCH BELOW (April 11, 2018): Bill 9 would create safe zones around abortion clinics and align Alberta with similar rules in B.C., Ontario and Quebec. But the UCP says the NDP is using it as a political ploy. Julia Wong reports.
Both Rachel Notley and Kenney have said individuals with varying personal views are welcome in their ranks and that candidates’ or MLAs’ personal beliefs won’t necessarily mean conflict over political decisions.
While that may be the case, Williams says Kenney needs to distance himself as a potential policymaker from some of his previous statements about personal convictions and his voting record. She said he also needs to assure voters that while the UCP includes many social conservatives, that doesn’t mean it will lead to socially conservative policy.
The Wilberforce Project claimed in a February blog post that if the UCP is elected, Alberta would have “the most pro-life legislature in decades, and maybe ever.”
“Albertans have differing views on this issue,” the UCP spokesperson responded, “as even the NDP has admitted.”
“There’s a pro-life group that is claiming that it has strategized to nominate pro-life candidates and is going to hold them accountable,” Williams said. “Some response, in my view, is needed to that initiative if this concern about policy in the area is going to be allayed.”
“I’m not surprised that opponents of the UCP are raising this,” Williams added. “Social conservatism has historically been an electoral vulnerability, and even moderate conservatives have concerns about it. The question is whether it’s a big enough issue to affect a significant number of votes.”
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