The Roman Catholic Bishops of Canada — Freedom of Conscience and Religion

June 8, 2012

The Roman Catholic Bishops of Canada have recently published a pastoral letter.

The Bishops begin by writing that “We are writing this pastoral letter to men and women of good will because of our conviction that religious believers can enrich society with their innumerable contributions to culture, political and economic life, health care and education.” I share the Bishops’ conviction.

The Bishops go on to say that “freedom of religion… implies the ability to embrace and openly practice one’s faith, both individually and communally, within society. It is directly related to freedom of conscience inasmuch as conscience, oriented to truth, is formed by religious faith.” I agree with the Bishops, at the same time raising a caution.

There are three problems with attributing truth to religious faith.

The first is that some “religions” are created by frauds in order to dupe others, or they are created by malevolent people in order to ensnare others.

The second problem is that while great and enduring religions may be “oriented to truth”, their orientation may be way off base from time to time. This has certainly been the experience of the Roman Catholic Church, as in the case of Galileo. There are good Catholics who believe, today, that the Church is off base with respect to the role of women, gender assignment and sexual orientation, and other issues.

This raises a third problem that comes with attributing truth to religious faith. Sometimes the institutions of a Church hold to a very different understanding of ‘truth’ than do the parishioners in the pews. And then, not every church has a hierarchical organization: not every church would place “truth” with the clergy alone, rather than with the congregants as well as the clergy.

For all of these reasons, in a civil democracy, freedom of religion is not conceived of as unrestricted, and it is not unrestricted in law or in practice. In Canada, as elsewhere, there are limits on religious freedom and the limits — including any restatements of them — are matters difficult to debate, difficult to decide, and fraught with political tensions (and even dangers). But from time to time we must have the debate. As the Bishops themselves say, quoting the Pontifical Council: “believers also need to recognize that “just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good.”

So far, our limits have relied on a solid framework. We can distinguish between what is done, on the one hand, in the public sphere but as a private person, and what is done, on the other hand, in the public sphere by someone whose role is as the voice, hands, or feet of the public in service to others of the public.

We allow individuals to say things in the public square that we would not allow a teacher representative of the whole community to say in a public school classroom. We allow a doctor who operates outside medicare to withhold a service although the withholding would be unacceptable if the doctor were receiving public funds. We allow clergy to decline to officiate at a religious ceremony uniting two people, although we would not allow a Marriage Commissioner, representing civil society, to refuse to officiate at a civil ceremony that embodies civil law.

The Bible says that we should “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” The corollary is that when a citizen represents Caesar, as an agent of the public, in the performance of a public act, Caesar’s rules apply.

This raises the question of the unjust law or, more difficult, the public policy which a citizen (or the citizen’s Church leaders) believes is morally wrong. Assuming that a matter of conscience separates a faithful believer from the law or policy of his civil community, what is he or she to do?

In a civil democratic society, we acknowledge and respect at least two honourable courses of action. The first is to resign, withdraw from the position in which one finds conflict of conscience. Cabinet Ministers and others have resigned from office. (Admittedly, that doesn’t happen often these days, but it is there for the person of conscience.) Conscientious objectors may be excused from military service, but if they join the army they must accept the terms of its discipline.

The second course of action is to engage in civil disobedience, a concept that is widely misunderstood these days. Civil disobedience is not premised on people breaking the law in secret, or publicly breaking with law and continuing, with immunity and with impunity. Civil disobedience is premised on people breaking the law in very public fashion, and accepting the consequences in the hope that public reaction will subsequently force a change in the law or the public policy. The Bishops write: “We recommend the following … to our fellow citizens: … protect the right to conscientious objection.” But conscientious objection without being willing to pay the price is mere theatrics. The Bishops may wish to go further. They may wish to advocate civil disobedience. (One of the most listened to songs on my iPhone is “Have you been to jail for justice?” sung by Peter, Paul and Mary.)

The Bishops express concern that “when it (freedom of religion) is threatened, all other rights are weakened and society suffers.” I understand their concern, but I would word the sentiment somewhat differently. Freedoms are constantly threatened. Threats alone do not weaken society, weak responses to threats weaken society. Threats may strengthen society, if the response is wise (imaginative, creative, and inclusive), strong, flexible, and mindful of posterity.

To put it another way, religious freedom is just as threatened by religious license as it is by religious oppression. Religious freedom, like every other freedom, exists and is strong when it is in tension with other rights and responsibilities.

The Bishops are right to express concern about freedom of religion and conscience. As a community, we should always be concerned about our freedoms, and our responsibilities. The Bishops are right to acknowledge “just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good”: this is the role of civil society.

Beyond that, it seems that some readers have read too much into the Pastoral Letter. The Bishops do not say that freedom of religion and conscience are absolute, and they certainly don’t say that it should be religious teachings that determine the boundaries (see above).

One very appropriate boundary for civil society to enforce is that, when a person of faith undertakes a position that represents the public to any citizen, the person of faith must represent the public fully and generously. If that is not possible, freedom of religion and conscience simply provides that the person is free to withdraw from the role, or free to challenge the role and face the civil consequences.

That wasn’t fear, that was rejection — Some thoughts about language

April 24, 2012

If we want a new model of politics and democracy in Alberta, we need to start by changing our language.

1. My friend Paul McLaughlin is quoted in a CBC story, which read: —
“‘Fear won out over anger,’ Paul McLoughlin, who writes the Alberta Scan newsletter, told the CBC radio show Calgary Eyeopener Tuesday morning, referring to “bozo eruptions” from two Wildrose candidates as well as Smith’s waffling on the reasons for climate change.”

Respectfully, I disagree. It seems to me that Alberta’s self-confidence won out over anger. As soon as the WRP emerged as the prospective alternative to the P.C.s, many Albertans decided they simply wouldn’t wear the mantle of a Wild Rose government for four years — given that it was presenting itself as “firewall favouring”, “ready to go it alone”, “climate change denying”, unconcerned about human rights… In fact, none of these trigger phrases may be fair comment about the Wild Rose Party, but they came up, often from within the Party itself, and the party didn’t (or couldn’t) make things right. Given that the campaign wrapped up offering a choice between punishing the Tories or asserting self-confidence about themselves and the future, Albertans chose to assert self-confidence.

There is a world of difference between saying that Monday’s election was dominated by fear and recognizing that it was dominated by a determination to avoid the chains of smallness, isolation, incivility, and victimization.

At the same time, 1,000s of Albertans are angry, and the anger has only been suspended. The new Tory government has work to do.

2. Let’s do ourselves — and Premier Redford — a favour. Let’s not refer to our government as the “Redford government”. Let’s promote the idea that we elected a team of M.L.A.s, and that every member of the team is responsible for what happens in the next 4 years, and will be held accountable. Let’s encourage every M.L.A. to have the courage to speak the truth they know. Let’s encourage Premier Redford to move away from the recent history of Paramount Leaders and — with her colleague M.L.A.s — into the arena of servant leadership.

3. The Globe and Mail quotes Ms. Smith as saying, “Ms. Redford won her (P.C.) leadership on the basis of getting Liberal and N.D.P. supporters to vote for her at the leadership, and clearly she did the same thing tonight (April 23rd).”

Respectfully, all party membership is infinitesimally small. Ms. Redford would not have won the P.C. leadership if every single card carrying member of every “left” party — but no one else — had joined the P.C.s to vote for her. If Ms. Smith meant that Ms. Redford had the support of 1,000s of Albertans who are sympathetic to social justice, economic opportunity, inclusion and optimism about Alberta’s future, then Ms. Smith is probably right in her assertion. But the way she phrased it leaves the impression that she was trying to use party labels to demonize “wrong-minded Albertans”, the same Albertans whose support she will want to encourage in the next 4 years.

The additional problem is that the Wild Rose Party cannot look strong, self-confident and committed to democracy when it is simultaneously blaming others for a defeat engineered by a conspiracy. The Wild Rose Party is not a victim.

4. Rejection, in politics, need not be permanent, and it need not be negative. Some of our most important lessons are learned from failure, especially when we change our ways.

Certainly, there are many politicians who know that acceptance is often not very long-lasting, and Tories should know that it doesn’t mean approval. To say that the Wild Rose Party was substantially rejected on April 23rd doesn’t marginalize them, or their work or their prospects. All parties must seek to understand the election results and use them as a springboard to more demonstrable respect for all voters, and more powerful engagement with voters.

Years from now the 2012 election in Alberta will be remembered as the watershed election. Moving on, we need to change our language to express our greater hope, our higher expectations, and our commitment to engage, together.

Election Day, Plus 1 — why I am a democrat

April 24, 2012

The Alberta provincial general election of 2012 is history.

Congratulations to Premier Redford and her kitchen cabinet — the group of men and women who developed the plan, and maintained the self-confidence and also the faith in Albertans to persevere when the going got tough.

Thanks, also, to every candidate — of every party — for putting his or her name forward, including the candidates whose views of Alberta are dramatically different from mine. My thanks to their families, and the supporters who advanced their cause.

Because of issues like conscience rights, this was a campaign in which voters could see that different candidates and parties had different perspectives about Alberta, different values, different approaches to the political process, and different visions of Alberta’s potential. The myth that Alberta is “right wing” appears to have been thoroughly rejected, so that the Progressive Conservative Party can govern from the centre.

That is not to say that the 1,000s of Albertans who voted for the WRP can or should be marginalized. Premier Redford knows that most of these votes were not ideologically driven, even though the voters gathered under the banner of ideology. Her job now — and her colleagues’ job — is to acknowledge the genuine hurt and feelings of disrespect that drove many Albertans to the WRP, and show respect — draw these Albertans back into the exciting flow of the mainstream.

The election results give Premier Redford a clear mandate that could be described as pragmatic, centrist, and hopeful, perhaps even imaginative.

It appears that, for this election, Albertans decided their crucial choice was between being judgmental (punishing the Tories for scandalous abuses) or being prospective (affirming the vision of the future that optimized the province’s potential). I interpret the election results to indicate Albertans chose the future.

Every election offers voters the opportunity to focus on one or two things. I had hoped that this election would focus on the old way of doing politics. I hoped that Albertans would vote, in large numbers, for candidates who were committed to a new way of doing politics. It seems to me that Albertans decided, in their wisdom, that the idea of turning away from the old way of doing politics was an idea not quite ready for prime-time. Or perhaps Albertans were ready for new ways of doing politics but decided it was more urgent to spike the guns of ideologues. The election results were not what I expected. I choose to hope that time will show positive outcomes.

So, we are reminded of something that was obvious before yesterday. Thousands of Albertans are angry about the scandalous behaviour of the Tory party in the not too distant past. (This, rather than ideology, explains many of the now opposition seats.) To-day, Premier Redford is Premier for these angry Albertans, as well as for all others. She has a moral as well as a political obligation to address their anger and assure them they are respected. The political story of the next four years will turn largely on this issue.

We also know three things we didn’t know yesterday.

1. Premier Redford has a fresh and clear mandate, to be pragmatic, centrist, and hopeful, perhaps even imaginative.
2. Alberta has turned its back on the myth of being “right wing” and isolationist, and is ready — like in football — to play a wide open game up the middle of the field.
3. The public has engaged in this campaign in ways unseen in Alberta since 1935. The engagement will not abate — it will grow — so the momentum for new ways of doing politics is picking up. (On this point, the election results are deceptive.) Parties like the Alberta Party and the Evergreen Party need to continue promoting an alternate and more healthy way of doing politics. They need to continue experimenting and risking as they do so. They need to continue making a path for fellow Albertans, including M.L.A.s in other parties who want to practice new ways of doing politics. They need to operate with an ‘open source’ commitment to sharing everything they learn and know. They need courage, and they need to be encouraged.

Congratulations Premier Redford. It was quite an election. It provides opportunity and energy for Alberta to grow and for democracy to grow in Alberta.

Left or right — Looking the wrong way at the Alberta election

April 22, 2012

The Edmonton Journal (Saturday, April 21st, 2012) carried a column with an interesting headline: Divided Left Wasted Glorious Opportunity. (here)

The columnist is missing the great story about the election — the emerging story about the future of politics in Alberta. The headline is firmly grounded in the past.

The historic description of politics as being left or right originated in France more than 200 years ago. The description is irrelevant to politics today. We have fiscal conservatives who are social liberals. We have religious conservatives who are civil libertarians. The terminology is almost meaningless: it will be completely meaningless by the time the next provincial general election rolls around.

It is quaint and unproductive to think of the left, or the right, coalescing. Such coalitions are irrelevant in the face of an even greater change that is coming.

The dominant model of electoral politics — the adversarial party model, dominated by paramount leaders — is almost unworkable, it is becoming more unworkable every day, and it cannot be redeemed. Given changed attitudes, values, and expectations, and changes in technology, and many other changes, the electoral-party model we understand is already being abandoned by many, including many people who have already abandoned old-style parties in favour of something different and more promising.

The ill effect of “uniting the left” can be considered in light of the alternative — uniting the right. At the moment, it is quite likely that either the Wild Rose Party or the P.C. Party will have the most seats after the election. The same thinking that promotes uniting the left would promote a coalition of the Wild Rose and P.C. parties — and that is very likely to happen. Strategic voting for the P.C.s, in order to “block” the Wild Rose, increases the likelihood that the “hard right” will dominate both parties, seek to combine in some formal way (as happened federally) and dominate the government for the next four years. (Which might not be as bad an outcome as its detractors might fear: the “hard right” is as amorphous, internally conflicted, ideologically paralyzed and tension filled as is the “hard left”.)

One of the major problems of the existing party system is precisely that all the historic parties are implicated, even the ones that have never been the government. For comparison, think of the N.H.L. Every team in the N.H.L. buys into the culture of the N.H.L., even if they finish last in the league, because they benefit from revenue sharing and the small patronage that is thrown their way (for example, first pick in the draft). Similarly, opposition parties that have been around for a long time adopt the dominant political culture and conventions, insist on hanging on to the names and chants that were storied long ago, and play by the rules in the hope that, next year, they will win the Cup.

Thousands of Albertans are joining new political organizations, because they have a new vision of what can be, a new vision of what politics can accomplish, and new ideas about how to do politics. They imagine the emergence of true democracy, from the ground up, rather than what is called “subsidiarity” — decisions made as close as possible to the grassroots, and it is the paramount leader at the top who decides how close to the grassroots the decisions get made.

For these Albertans, uniting the left is a trivial goal, because the terminology is meaningless and counterproductive. For these Albertans, getting behind one of the “outs” in order to put an “out” in, is simply delaying what needs to be done. The Liberal Party, for example, is every bit as committed to the idea of the paramount Leader as is the Wild Rose Party or the Progressive Conservative Party.

People who really believe that the old style of politics has failed beyond repair, people who really value the opportunities facing Alberta, people who really believe in working with neighbours to make good things happen — these people will look past the well-established parties. They will look at the new organizations that are trying to do politics differently. They will look at the organizations that put their emphasis on the local candidate rather than the provincial leader. They will look at the organizations that make candidates accountable to the constituency rather than to the paramount leader. They will look at the candidates who:
• present themselves as whole people who are prepared to be the servants of those who elect them;
• are trying to be collaborative, rather than confrontational;
• are trying to be inclusive, rather than exclusive and divisive;
• are evidence-based decision-makers, rather than ideologues.

Uniting the left… how passe. Let’s unite the cooperators, the innovators, the doers, the compassionate, the justice-seeking, the respectful. And let’s invent a new and more fruitful way of practicing democracy without an obsessive unhealthy attention to electoral success.

Leech, Hunsperger, and Byfield — Let’s Focus on Local Accountability

April 21, 2012

In this provincial general election, Albertans are caught with one foot in the political past while the other foot is searching for the firm ground of the political future. Our scrutiny of nominated candidates, and our evaluation of the Leaders provide two good example of this.

Wild Rose Leader Danielle Smith faces controversy about her party’s candidates in some constituencies. The suggestion has been made that she should disavow — and perhaps disallow — some of the Wild Rose candidates. She has done the right thing by refusing to do either.

Ms. Smith didn’t nominate Ron Leech to be the Party’s candidate in Calgary Greenway, or Allan Hunsperger in Edmonton Southwest, or Link Byfield in Barrhead-Morinville-Wetlock. Wild Rose party members in each of these three constituencies — in all 87 constituencies — nominated the respective candidates. It was Wild Rose Party members, living locally, who nominated candidates they thought best reflected the values of the Wild Rose Party in the constituency. They nominated the whole PERSON that they thought would be the face, voice, heart, and mind best able to reflect their Wild Rose values to the rest of the constituency.

Of course the candidate’s religious convictions, character, and attitudes toward issues like human rights and the rule of law will determine how that candidate will view and vote on all kinds of matters that will arise in the future. Party members (should) consider all of these things when they choose a candidate, because they know the candidate won’t be back to ask for direction before voting on all kinds of matters in the future. Voters should be asking questions about all of this as well, and assessing what they learn, before they vote.

Frankly, I don’t want Ms. Smith to “fire” nominated candidates she disagrees with, no matter what the nature of the disagreement. I don’t believe any party leader should adopt the role of “paramount Leader”. Ms. Smith’s appropriate role should have been played out before nominating meetings started, when she (presumably) communicated to Party members the range of beliefs and values and directions she would be comfortable working with. Since she clearly did not signal anything to indicate that recent statements by some of her candidates would be problematic, voters in each constituency should express their own views about the decision made by the local association of the Wild Rose Party Wild Rose Party members nominated their candidate in each constituency across the province, just as Liberals, N.D.s, and Alberta Party members did the same thing for their respective parties.

If Albertans are tired of the “paramount Leader” model of politics, if Albertans want to re-assert the role of the locally elected M.L.A. as a moral representative of the constituency, then it is not for Danielle Smith to judge candidates: that judgement is the role of electors. Party constituency associations must accept responsibility for their nominee. Accountability for their nominee, accountability to the electorate, will be experienced on election day.

Monday’s election is not a referendum on Danielle Smith’s leadership (so far we have only seen the audition tapes): it is a referendum on the sensibilities of the Wild Rose Party — and the P.C. Party, and all other parties, from constituency to constituency across Alberta. The Wild Rose Party in Calgary Greenway thinks that Ron Leech is the best possible face and voice, and heart and mind to represent all the constituents in the Legislative Assembly. The Wild Rose Party in Edmonton Southwest thinks the same of Allan Hunspurger. The Wild Rose Party in Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock thinks the same thing of Link Byfield. These men are not proxies for Danielle Smith. If each or all of them win, they will be Members of the Legislative Assembly. They may be Cabinet Ministers. They will each have a vote on every issue that comes before the Assembly. They will each have some influence on narrowing or broadening the vision of their leader and their colleagues. Maybe their Leader will rein them in; maybe they will rein in their Leader. In either case, they will each be the face and voice and heart and mind of their constituency.

It should be the voters of the constituencies who judge the candidates on the ballot. The same could be said for every candidate nominated by each party’s members in every constituency across the province.

Through the process of party nomination, some citizens (party members) have felt that each nominated candidate was the best possible representative of their political perspective. It is not for the party leader to say ‘yay’, or ‘nay”. It is for fellow citizens to say “yes, you sure understand us and we want your candidate to be our voice in the Legislature”, or “no, you — and your nominated candidate — are not really representative of the values and dreams and priorities we hold dear.

On election day, the voters in each constituency will decide which face, voice, mind, and spirit is going to be their agent in the Legislative Assembly for the next four years.

As an aside, while Party Leaders should not be able to disallow locally nominated candidates, caucus (not the Leader), can always decide who is a member of caucus and who is not.

Democratic Reform — can’t we be more upbeat?

April 11, 2012

“Democratic reform” is a term that doesn’t often excite most citizens. And most citizens view those excited by democratic reform as having a masochistic streak.

The term makes it sound as though we have failed, or have at least let our democracy fall into disrepair. The term suggests that we need to redeem the status quo with some pretty serious restoration or some incrementtal improvements, to get us back on track.

Let’s shift our focus. Instead of thinking about “reform”, why don’t we think about AiD — an “Adventure in Democracy”.

The democracy we are familiar with is essentially 175 – 200 years old. It’s held up pretty well in the face of immense technological and social changes. It’s time for us to adopt a more modern view of democracy itself, at which point the challenge is not to cut out the corrupt, or restore the familiar, or make incremental improvements to the status quo.

The way our political mechanisms work reflects the pre-democratic conviction that sovereignty flows from the top down — citizens are not really moral enough, or educated enough, or social enough to really participate in the decision-making process, so we should only allow limited citizen participation (consultations, and advisory boards, and letter-writing, etc.) and leave the decision-making to the ‘proper authorities’, the elected representatives who have become moral enough, or educated enough, or social enough through the experience of being elected (or perhaps, through the experience of belonging to a party that does their thinking for them).

There is a model of government called “subsidiarity”, which says that decisions should be made as close as possible to the people who will live with them, and the person or people at the very top should decide exactly where decisions are made. Democracy represents a model of government in which decisions are made as close as possible to the people who will live with them, and the people who will live with them decide exactly where decisions are made.

Every Albertan is also a Canadian, and also a citizen of a city, town, or village, or rural municipality. It is not for the government of Canada to decide how the decision-making pie is sliced, and it is not for the government of Alberta to make that decision, and it is not for our local council to make that decision. All of these elected representatives are our servants, and they must let citizens decide which servant will do which work.

We don’t need to reform democracy, in order to improve on the status quo, or correct our previous errors.

We need to think of democracy as an adventure into unknown — and incredibly rich — territory. We shouldn’t think of our work as ‘reform’, and the drudgery that needs to be done ‘to clean up’. We should think about creation and invention, faithful to the ideas of:
• freedom from tyranny (and from being a tyrant);
• harmony
• the rule of law;
• natural equality;
• citizen wisdom; and
• education; and,
• forward-looking wisdom without certain knowledge.
(my thanks again to Paul Woodruff).

Particularly at this time, we don’t want politicians telling us how they would ‘reform’ the system. Left to their own devices, that could prove to be very self-serving. We should welcome input from every candidate and every party, but now is the time that citizens should claim the primary role of inventor of the democracy to come.

The sky’s the limit for good ideas — great ideas. However we have arrived at the felt need to do good work to promote democracy, let’s make the most of the opportunity.

To promote the conversation, think of
• the electoral process, including how we choose our representatives (first past the post, or proportional representation, or some other means); who is entitled to vote; means of representative accountability (such as recall);
• the role and organization of parties; campaigning, including financing elections, advertising, using new technology (robo-calls);
• the role and organization of the Legislative Assembly and the role and organization of caucus (including party discipline); the purpose of Committees; the Officers of the Legislative Assembly, setting M.L.A. pay;
• citizen participation (citizen initiatives) and decision-making (for example, when the Constitution of Alberta is amended [yes, there is a Constitution of Alberta]) — Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy, and whiste-blower legislation.

One of the choices available to Albertans in this election is to be the last out of the past as far as democratic processes are concerned (the most sophisticated expression of the old way of doing politics), or we can be first into the future, exploring 21st century ways of living democracy.

Alberta’s current election is about local government as well as provincial government

April 11, 2012

In many circumstances, and on many occasions, local government is more important to citizens than is the provincial government. EXCEPT..

The provincial government frames everything that local government can or cannot do.

Between now and April 23rd, Alberta’s voters should spend a lot of time thinking about their property tax bill, the condition of streets and cul-de-sacs, appropriate policing, municipal parks, local infra-structure to support a strong local economy, and the list goes on… What your municipal council is able to do depends a lot on the largess of the provincial government.

The relationship between the provincial government and local government is outmoded and dysfunctional. Citizens bear the brunt of this reality, in terms of: service limitations; taxes that pay for questionable supervision and layers of management, instead of service; the cost of lost opportunities; and, (dis-)satisfaction. Whether the service is provided locally or provincially, the same taxpayer pays for it all. Whether the elected representative serves locally or provincially, they are servant of the same citizen. The citizen is no richer or smarter on the day s/he votes for a provincial representative than on the day s/he votes for a local representative.

For the good of us all, the relationship between our local government (community) and our provincial government (community) needs to be re-framed. We won’t get specific programs or policies right until we have the framework right.

There is a good argument to be made that local government is more important to our well-being than is the provincial or federal government. It is certainly true that local government has more seniority (it’s been around longer), is closer to citizens, and operates in a more organic (natural) way than does the provincial or federal government. Local government appears to have an advantage, as well, in operating without the oppressive conformity of the party system.

It is not helpful to have a provincial government that approaches its relationship with local government in a patronizing way.

Voters should go to citiesmatter.ca (here) for some thoughtful discussion starters about the relationship between local government and the provincial government. Mayor Nenshi offers a city perspective. Almost everything on the site is just as relevant to towns, villages, and rural municipalities (perhaps with slight modification). The relevant party positions are consolidated and provide a good basis for voters to start a conversation with candidates. Party positions should be read with a watchful eye for patronizing language, a predisposition to the provincial agenda rather than local agendas, and a fixation on quantities and means rather than quality and ends.

Full disclosure. I think the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta had the most comprehensive and modern take on the relationship, about five years ago. I worked with the public school trustees who developed the ideas, so I have a vested interest in the model they adopted.

1. Local government is (at least) as important to citizens as is the provincial government. Ask your candidates if s/he believes this.

2. The relationship between the provincial government and local government should be treated as a respectful partnership. When such a partnership works well, individual citizens benefit: so does the local community and the provincial community. Each partner has something vital to contribute, and it is not for the provincial government alone to decide, or change, the terms of the partnership. Ask your candidates if they believe the respectful partnership should be embodied in a written covenant — a local government charter?

3. A local government charter should structure the relationship of every municipality with the provincial government. There may be different provisions differently applied, to recognize very different circumstances but, Mayor Nenshi, while I love Calgary and Edmonton, I think Lethbridge, and Hinton and Provost — and all other municipalities — are just as entitled to certainty in their relationship with the provincial government as are the two big cities.) Ask your candidates is they believe every municipality should have the benefit — and the responsibility — of a local government charter.

4. The terms of the partnership should be determined, and amended, by Albertans (who are citizens of both the province and the local municipality). Citizens might reasonably be concerned, even if the provincial government agrees to a local government charter, that such a charter might be developed unilaterally, even after ‘consultations” with local government. (How many times have we heard citizens say, “The government invited us to talk, but they sure didn’t listen.”) Perhaps the wise government would make a commitment that a local government charter will be jointly developed, and will not be enacted unless a) the AUMA and the AAMD&C formally agree to it; or, b) the people of Alberta decide, in a referendum where they have a choice between the local government charter preferred by the provincial government and the one preferred by locally elected representatives. Perhaps citizens should put the politicians on a strict deadline. For example, perhaps if there isn’t agreement on a local government charter within three years, the citizens will choose one or the other. Ask your candidates is they agree with the idea of joint development of a local government charter, and citizen endorsement.

5. Thereafter, a conventional piece of provincial legislation can be easily and unilaterally amended at any time in the future. In other words, even a local government charter could evolve over time to embody a provincial government’s very patronizing outlook. Perhaps a wise provincial government would make a commitment that a local government charter, once adopted, would not be amended except with the agreement of Albertans, in a referendum. Ask your candidates is the agree that the provincial government should not be able to amend a local government charter unilaterally.

On a visit to Claresholm a few years ago I passed a big billboard alongside the highway. The message was: “Less Ottawa, more Alberta.” The sponsor was mixing apples and oranges, rejecting the distant politicians and mandarins in favour of the nearer community. Today the message might well read: Less Edmonton more Claresholm”. I believe in Alberta. Alongside many Albertans, I worked for 40 years to make a success of our province. I believe that, in the past 20 years, we have weakened local communities and weakened Alberta at the same time. There are ways to make our communities stronger and thereby make our community of communities stronger. This election is about the future of villages, towns, and cities — it is about the future of local communities, as much as it is about the future of Alberta.

(Next, revenue sharing.)

Conscience Rights — with thanks to Graham Thomson and Danielle Smith

April 10, 2012

Alberta is in the midst of a great election campaign. Voters and the media are talking to each other, and listening to each other, and sometimes politicians join the conversation. Ideas are being tested, and sometimes changing, and all of us are being informed.

Graham Thomson’s column in today’s Edmonton Journal is a good example (see previous post).

His exchange with Wild Rose leader Danielle Smith provides some clarification about positions. The exchange also raises further questions.

Ms. Smith seems to be downplaying conscience rights as a matter of much concern for voters. Her argument is that the mechanics of operationalizing conscience rights make them more theoretical than real.

But, a provincial government could always use the “Notwithstanding” provision of the Charter (section 33) to override the Saskatchewan decision. Professional codes of conduct are always subject to provincial law, so the issue for government — and for voters — is not whether the government needs to get involved. The issue is whether the government wants to get involved.

As Ms. Smith makes clear, she is most often going to follow the direction set by her Party. If the Wild Rose party forms the government, as they have these wide-open conversations and set the direction for the government and the province, what arguments will Ms. Smith bring to the table, about ends. She says she is not going to be pre-emptory, and I accept that. But she is also not going to be silent — at least, I hope not. What personal leadership will she offer?

With all of her ‘clarification’ about process, Ms. Smith has not been any more clear about whether she herself favours or is opposed to legislating conscience rights. In the absence of any clear statement from her about her personal position, we have to believe that she would accept and implement whatever the Party decides. If the Party can find a way of overcoming the Saskatchewan decision, where would Ms. Smith go with conscience rights? If the Party decides to explore invoking the “Notwithstanding” clause, where would Ms. Smith stand on that issue, and then where would she go with conscience rights?

Grahams, give her another call.

Smith’s learning to adjust (Edmonton Journal, 10 Apr 2012, PageA12)

April 10, 2012

Smith’s learning to adjust
GRAHAM THOMSON gthomson@edmontonjournal. com
Edmonton Journal
10 Apr 2012

If public opinion polls are correct and Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford is piloting the political equivalent of the Titanic, the Wildrose Party is the iceberg and Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith is the tip bobbing telegenically on the…read more…

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A conscience is a costly freedom, worth nothing if it is free

April 9, 2012

The concept of “conscience rights” has burst upon the Alberta election campaign in the past few days. This is not the same thing as having freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience is already guaranteed by the much maligned Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In fact, “freedom of conscience and religion” is the first right guaranteed by the Charter.

As “conscience rights” are being promoted, they would apparently entail a legislated assurance that individual citizens could follow their own conscience to the extent of refusing to provide public services that are at odds with their own conscience. Doctors, it is suggested, should be able to refuse to provide abortions or birth control information or prescriptions, if the doctor, in good conscience, objects to abortion or birth control practices. A Marriage Commissioner, it is suggested, should be able to refuse to marry a gay couple, or an inter-racial couple if, in good conscience, the Commissioner believes that homosexual or inter-racial unions are wrong. A high school teacher, it is suggested, should be able to exclude an unveiled teen-aged girl from his/her classroom if the teacher believes, in good conscience, that post-pubescent girls should not be seen unveiled in public.

Given that we have freedom of conscience in Canada, the doctor, the Marriage Commissioner, and the teacher, and every other citizen, already have three options available to them if their conscience runs up against public policy and law. First, they can arrange their affairs to avoid the issue: For example, the doctor can practice outside the public health care system, or engage in a practice that doesn’t touch on the conscience issue; the Marriage Commissioner can decline the appointment; the teacher can seek work in an all-boys school. Second, they can practice civil disobedience, disobey the law, and publicly accept the consequences as a means of engaging a public debate about right laws. Civil disobedience is not disobedience in secret, with the intent of avoid the consequences. Civil disobedience is disobedience in public, with the intent of bringing bad law into disrepute, or ridicule, or dis-function. Third, they can obey in the meantime, and seek to have the law changed. The course of action any citizen would follow would depend upon how strongly s/he feels about the issue in the circumstances.

What, then, might be gained by instituting conscience rights? Any why haven’t we seen more of this before now? The concept is ill-formed and problematic.

It is not clear whether the concept is intended to be unconditional, or conditional. An unconditional conscience right would mean anyone could act freely in any situation on the simple declaration that they are exercising a “conscience right”.

There is an ancient east Indian sect, known as thuggees, who performed ritual murder. An unrestricted conscience rights would presumably allow a thuggee to express his conscientious belief that ritual murder is the right thing to do (freedom of conscience), and then commit ritual murder in compliance with his conscience (a conscience right).A conditional conscience right would entail the government deciding that conscience should trump public policy and the law in only some situations, and the government would be the arbiter of conscience rights.

The reference may seem ludicrous, for the simple reason that, while both church and secular society believe in conscience, both church and society also believe that the individual conscience is not, by itself, a constantly reliable determinant of action in the public sphere. The Judeo-Christian tradition does not believe that everyone’s conscience is equally “good”. So, in the Christian tradition, a framework is constructed by which the to judge if conscience is good or bad. (The framework is sometimes built on Scripture and sometimes on Church dogma, but it is there for every Church.) Since no organized society or theocracy recognizes unrestricted conscience, the introduction of conscience rights in Alberta would almost certainly depend upon the government (assume for a moment that it is Wild Rose) deciding on some limited number of situations in which conscience should trump public policy and law. Making the list would be an interesting political exercise. When a society, such as Alberta, includes faiths other than Christianity, including people who have no ‘faith’, then the construct might have to be built to respect a wider range of beliefs. But perhaps the list would not be more general. Perhaps Christian but not Muslim, perhaps Protestant but not Roman Catholic, perhaps evangelical but not liberal, perhaps citizens certified by government approved clergy, but not others. Perhaps the list would recognize conscience in some fields, such as medicine, but not others, such as housing.

For example, evangelical Christians have a strong sense of what constitutes good conscience or bad conscience. They also seem to have a strong sense of judgement — a strong sense that s/he who acts wrongly should be judged. It is hard to imagine that such citizens would want an unrestricted conscience right, although they may well want a conscience right that reflects their own views about which issues are important and what is right action in the context of the issue. But, of course, other citizens would say that if the conscience right is not unrestricted it should reflect their view of what issues are important, and what is right to do.

As the earlier reference to thuggees suggests, there is a reason why freedom of conscience (and freedom of speech) does not carry with it the unreseved right to follow our personal conscience or act on our speech. An unrestricted “conscience right” would convey rights to people of no conscience as well as those of very sensitive conscience. It would convey rights to those with a culturally developed conscience very much in accord with common experience in Alberta as well as those that might be very different from what is common in Alberta.

There would likely be considerable tension between conscience rights and human rights. Does the human right to housing trump the conscience right to deny housing to unmarried couples, or inter-racial couples, or vice versa? Does a father’s conscience right to keep his adult unmarried daughter isolated from the world trump the daughter’s right to freedom, or vice versa.

The only real value of a conscience is when exercising it is such a fragile experience that we must pay close attention. When the government explicitly allows citizens to act as they wish in any or all circumstances, without regard for the consequences, simply on the basis that the citizen claims a conscience right, society will be in deep trouble.

I support the right of any citizen to try to persuade me that birth control (for example) should be delisted. I applaud the citizen who will engage in civil disobedience to call attention to a law or public policy /she believes is wrong, and accept the consequences. I do not believe in giving anybody’s conscience a “get out of jail free” card. As human beings, we deserve better.