Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Premier Stelmach Say Bill 44 is a Free Vote and I Believe Him!

The smart money seems to believe that Bill44, as amended, will go through Third Reading tomorrow and become law. It will not be enforceable law until it gets signed by the Lieutenant Governor.

There have been some changes to Bill 44 presented by the government as a result of the political pressure and particularly from by teachers, school trustees and parent groups. More on that late, but the other significant change around Bill 44 was Premier Stelmach’s announcement yesterday that it would be subject open to a free vote in the Legislature. This is a dramatic turnaround from the staunch position of a few days ago that Bill 44 was going to proceed as a government bill and “as is.”

Premier Stelmach’s surprise pronouncement yesterday that Bill 44 would be subject to a free vote is very significant, shows enlightened leadership and needs to be acknowledged. There are many who don’t believe Bill 44 will be a free vote but I do. I think a free vote is only important at Third and final reading that makes the Bill the law of the land. Every vote beforehand is process and a free vote has no real meaning there. Liberal Opposition Leader has also said his caucus will have a free vote on Bill 44 as well, and given the small size of the NDP caucus every vote is essentially a free vote.

A free vote means that every MLA will be able to vote their conscience on Bill 44 without having to support party lines. I don’t know if the House voted on the government amendments last night or not but let’s not confuse the matter with parliamentary process. Let’s stay with the personal, political and leadership importance of a free vote.

A free vote shows the Premier recognizes the fundamental morality concerns and the personal values-based nature of what Bill 44 is all about. This shows Premier Stelmach is prepared to lose the vote and the passing Bill 44 into law. That is unlikely, but with a true free vote, why would anyone not take the Premier at his word on that?

Are there enough Progressives in the Stelmach government who do not doubt the Premier’s word and who will vote against Bill 44 as a matter of personal conscience regardless of partisanship? Are there some in the PC Caucus who realize that the opting out provisions are flawed? Do they see that the recent government amendments do nothing to fix the flaws, and may even make them worse? Will they exercise the free vote opportunity and declare their distaste for the unfortunate elements in this Bill and vote against it?

Or will the MLAs in the Progressive Conservative Caucus not believe the Premier when he said Bill 44 is a free vote? Are they afraid there will be consequences if they vote their conscience and oppose a government Bill regardless of what the Premier said about a free vote? That would be sad at so many levels and in so many ways, including the further erosion of our democracy. It would also show a lack of confidence in the leadership of the Premier if PC MLAs somehow felt they could not take him at his word that Bill 44 is a free vote for his Caucus.

I believe this proposed Alberta Human Rights law does not elevate Alberta society, or in any way, serve the greater good. It is supposed to be a law about what we believe in and reflect positively on us as a fair-minded, inclusive, diverse and respectful society. But it is so defective in serving those core Alberta principles, rather than make us proud to be Albertan; Bill 44 makes us want to cringe.

I don’t think there will be enough freely exercised Progressive Conservative MLA who will vote their personal conscience and defeat Bill 44. I also know not every PC MLA is enamoured with Bill 44 but they may think the “hard fought” amendments fix the problems so they can exercise their free vote and support the amended Bill. On a clear reading of the implication of the amendments, even by a mediocre legal mind, it is obvious that the hastily constructed parsing of words in the amendments only add process complexity instead of clarity. The changes simply don’t fix the fundamental flaws in Bill 44. For those who are not regular readers of this Blog just go back to archive entries for 2 weeks or so to get a sense of just how dreadful this Bill is.

If there are no dissenting votes from the PC side at third reading, as a Progressive Conservative Party member, I will be more disappointed than surprised. I will not know if that unanimity happened because the PC Caucus did not believe or trust the word of the Premier, their leader, when he gave his free vote directive on Bill 44. I will not know if that unanimous support of the amended Bill 44 was a character flaw or a judgment shortcoming of individual MLAs because they would not or could not see the serious social consequences of making such an ill-conceived law. I will not know if the Caucus membership is so timid or intimidated that some members who beg to differ, but rather choose to defer. I will suspect that if they all act like sheep they will at least have the integrity to be sheepish about it. Time will tell.

There is a great democratic force emerging on the political scene. It is an budding wave of voter energy and civic engagement that Bill 44 has created amongst networked and tech-savvy Influentials. I predict that nascent opinionated personal energy will become an on-going political force that will grow and gather momentum in Alberta. I smell democracy in the air and I sense a change coming. A few short hours ago hundreds of Influential tech-savvy and politically engaged Albertans from all over our province got on their computers and found each other online because of opposition to Bill 44. They eagerly explored their differences and enjoyed their like-mindedness too. The focus was all about what Bill 44 would do to offend their shared values and pride as Albertans.

A small group of people with the personal empowerment and communal potential got together on line, in Alberta, until very late last night. They engaged in common cause last night and that they may be the start of creating some big political changes that they want to see in their Alberta.

Margaret Meade is often quoted about cautioning to never underestimating the power of a small group of people to change the world - because that is the way it is always done. Margaret would have been proud of what she saw last night in Alberta. She would have enjoyed watch us struggle to find any rational reason, other than pettiness and pure power politics, for certain devastating, destructive and discriminatory changes being introduced into our Alberta Human Rights Act.

Late last night, online, a lot of Albertans got together, found each other, and started to wake up as they deliberately dusted off their citizenship. If Bill 44 is not a real free vote, there will be a political cost for Alberta Conservatives.