The conscience clause

Thinking about voting Wildrose in the next election?

You  might want to rethink your decision, now that leader Danielle Smith has unveiled her  “conscience clause.” Ms. Smith wants to make it legal for some civil servants to deny us services if their conscience tells them to do so.

Now, if you’re a hard-working and hard-headed Albertan, this might strike you as odd. After all, you think, we all pay taxes and we’re all entitled to the same government services no matter who we are. Fair’s fair.

And civil servants are paid well to to do their jobs. If they’re not willing to do their jobs and to treat us all equally, maybe they should quit – before they’re fired. So, for example, if  a government worker’s  “conscience” prevents him from handling other people’s smelly garbage, maybe he should’t have applied for that job as garbage collector in the first place.

But Ms. Smith thinks you’re wrong, wrong, wrong. And here’s how her scheme would work.

Let’s say a marriage commissioner decides that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry. Or a doctor or pharmacist decides contraception is wrong.  They would simply have to claim that to provide these services would violate their conscience and thereby deny the service without penalty.

Ms. Smith says the measure will better protect our freedoms. But there’s reason to be skeptical of this do-it-yourself discrimination plan for civil servants.

First, even though Ms. Smith is committed to small government, this isn’t a measure designed to address some horrific threat to social order and freedom. Marriage commissioners, as we all know, are not subject to the same sort of persecution that, say, gays and lesbians are. So why does she think the government needs to protect our consciences?

The real reason is vote-grabbing. The conscience clause is akin to Ms. Smith’s’s promise to send us all cheques, some time in the future, which we’ll likely use to buy consumer products (rather than the government wisely investing the money to provide Albertans with the infrastructure and social services we need to stay competitive). Ms. Smith’s conscience clause is an attempt to buy votes – in this case, the votes of social conservatives and fundamentalist Christians.

Second, an overwhelming majority of Canadian women use contraceptives at some point in their adult life. And women in smaller communities may have few opportunities to “shop around” if their doctor or pharmacist denies them access to contraceptives on “conscience” grounds.

Third, it’s notorious that people’s consciences don’t all agree (in the way that we all agree that 2+2=4). And, if elected, Ms. Steele won’t be able to pick and choose between people who have “correct” consciences” and those with faulty ones. Like as not, she’ll be forced to protect the consciences of all without regard for that those consciences  tell us. And Ms. Smith won’t be able to to simply protect conscientious views on those issues (health care and marriage) which are flash points for her targeted demographic. Simply put, she’ll have to extend the conscience clause to all civil servants.

What does this mean to you? Well, suppose, for example, a meat inspector decides, on religious grounds, that pork is unclean and refuses to approve it – on conscience grounds. Say goodbye to your breakfast bacon. But be grateful the inspector wasn’t a vegetarian!

Or your male doctor might decide not to treat women, or to only treat women wearing burkas – again, on conscience grounds.

Or a university professor might decide to award your children  a failing grade merely because they’re Christian – all because of his conscience.

You might demand that these civil servants be sacked. But Ms. Smith won’t let you do that.

You might want to file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. Discrimination! But Ms. Smith won’t let you do that either.

Under a Smith government, your only recourse will be to launch a lengthy, and probably expensive, court case. Which, given our regard for human rights and previous court decisions, you’ll probably win. But it’ll take time.

Will this issue sway your vote? Unlikely. After all, if you’ve already decided to vote Wildrose, you probably think  libertarians are the best people to protect our social programs. Maybe you won’t need health care when you get older.

And you probably think climate-change deniers are the best people to protect the environment. After all, you’ll probably be long dead when your grandkids have to confront the changes brought on by increasing temperatures.

But there will still be a mess to clean up.


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