A relatively small $4-million-a-year amount in the recent Alberta budget – an item focused on making adoption in the province more affordable – might be a benefit to some families and children. But it’s also a deeply political move, focused on keeping the often-divided United Conservative Party both electable, and all on the same page.
The 2023-24 budget paid special attention to “securing the future of our youngest Albertans by reducing cost barriers associated with adoption expenses, so that more children can find their forever homes.”
The changes include extending health benefits to children adopted domestically from government care or through a licensed adoption agency, and providing grant funding to prospective adoptive parents making less than $180,000 a year. The provincial adoption-expense tax credit will increase to match the federal threshold.
For sure, this might be good for some. Adoption can take years and tens of thousands of dollars. Many struggle with infertility and would like to consider adopting. And the number of children adopted by families who were in the care of Alberta Children’s Services isn’t enough to keep up with the need, less than 200 a year, according to the most recent provincial data.
It’s hard to fault any program that is going to help children find homes. But the subtlety of this new adoption push is it’s also about keeping those opposed to abortion firmly in the UCP tent. Premier Danielle Smith, who has spoken of herself as a pro-choice leader for more than a decade, said a focus on adoption is common ground for both social conservatives and libertarians.
The adoption line in Alberta’s budget is linked directly to the moment last summer when the issue of abortion was on everyone’s minds. The U.S. Supreme Court had just overturned Roe v. Wade – the case that made access to an abortion a federal right – opening the door to 13 states now banning most abortions.
The context is different here in Canada: Abortion was decriminalized by the Supreme Court in 1988 after R. v. Morgentaler, and is treated as a medical procedure. However, provinces do have broad control over funding and access.
In August, a conservative news site held a debate for front-runners in the UCP leadership race, and the last question was around abortion in Alberta. Ms. Smith, standing on stage with Travis Toews and Brian Jean, told the Western Standard audience it’s a heated issue.
“I have spent my whole career trying to find ways that libertarians and social conservatives can find areas that they agree on. So, I would hope that we would not have to revisit that issue. Because I think that that creates an environment of conflict which can escalate, because you’re dealing with a very sensitive issue of life,” she said.
“My view is that we need to be focused on what was the original promise, that abortion would be safe, legal and rare,” Ms. Smith said (actually using the famous phrase coined by former U.S. president Bill Clinton more than 30 years ago, in his push to unite his Democratic Party on the issue).
“And I would like to see us spend more time and effort in supporting women to make a different choice, with adoption,” she said, eliciting a huge cheer from the conservative crowd.
Next to her on stage, Mr. Toews then said he personally was part of the pro-life camp but also wouldn’t reopen the issue. He and Mr. Jean also said they would bolster support for adoption.
The UCP is a movement filled of a whole range of conservatives, and keeping the most conservative elements of the party satisfied while having broader public appeal is the challenge for any UCP leader.
At this moment in this strange political world, abortion is certainly still a key issue for a small cohort of voters. But despite the attention paid to abortion last summer, the most conservative elements in the province now appear far less concerned about social issues. In fact, a poll last year showed Albertans in general are among the most likely in Canada to say abortion should be permitted whenever it is wanted.
The right is far more likely to be worried about Ms. Smith being reticent to talk about using her Sovereignty Act, or enshrining protections for the unvaccinated in law. A movement calling itself Take Back Alberta is trying to keep up the pressure on the governing party. TBA is a group of conservatives who talk about taking power from the ruling elite, who are against federal and provincial COVID-19 health and economic measures, and who claim credit for bringing Jason Kenney down as premier last year.
Conservative strategist Ken Boessenkool says some social conservatives – who in previous decades might have fought against expanded abortion access or same-sex marriage – have become “hard-core libertarians.” Ms. Smith’s emphasis on personal liberty – suspicious of many types of government intrusion or intervention, including vaccine mandates or climate policies – fits with this evolving outlook.
This is a major problem for the UCP as it works to win or hold onto support from middle-of-the-road voters in Calgary, which it needs in the May election. They’re far less focused on these issues.
Frightening people even further by dredging up old debates about abortion is far from a winning strategy. Because on the other side, Liberal and NDP politicians have long used the issue as a wedge against the Conservatives, by stirring concern that abortion rights in Canada will be diminished. In keeping with this, Rachel Notley’s NDP is almost sure to continue to lambaste the UCP over social issues.
Meanwhile, the UCP campaign to at least not alienate any potential voters has begun. For more mainstream voters, the Premier has toned down talking about the Sovereignty Act or the plight of the unvaccinated.
But in keeping her unsteady political coalition together, Ms. Smith also won’t talk much these days about being pro-choice. So talking about something as inoffensive as more government money for adoptions is helpful.