Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberals are showing all the signs they'd like abortion to become an election issue in Ontario, in hopes of tagging the Progressive Conservatives as anti-choice.
The Liberals deny they are deliberately trying to stir the pot, insisting that they are only motivated by the desire to protect a woman's right to choose and to prevent harassment around abortion clinics.
But it's clear from their messaging they are aiming to raise voters' doubts about PC leader Patrick Brown's stance on abortion, or at least create a pro-choice versus pro-life rift in his party, with election day (June 7) just eight months away.
The political manoeuvring was laid bare Thursday when the Liberals stopped the Legislature from immediately passing their own bill to create "safe zones" around abortion clinics.
The legislation, introduced Wednesday, would prohibit people from engaging in many types of protest tactics near clinics, such as showing anti-abortion signs or trying to dissuade women from having an abortion.
Liberal politicians said they refused to fast-track the bill because they want to give interest groups the chance to look closely at the legislation during committee hearings. Critics are questioning whether that's truly the motive, or whether the Liberals are merely trying to gain maximum political benefit by dragging out the passage of the law.
"We are not playing politics with this," insisted Deputy Premier Deb Matthews on Thursday.
Matthews made the comment about one hour after the Liberals put out a news release headlined "Patrick Brown's Double Speak on Abortion Rights." It said Brown, during his time as a federal Conservative MP, voted in favour of "a motion that sought the criminalization of abortion services, presumably by jailing the women and her doctors and nurses."
That release was in response to Brown's declaration Wednesday in this video posted to Twitter. "Let me be very clear. I'm pro choice," he said.
Brown also accused Wynne of having "an agenda ... to re-open debates about divisive social issues," and added, "She's not motivated by what's good for Ontario. She's motivated, as always, by what's good for her."
Brown has been trying to shake off the notion that he's a social conservative. The Liberals use every opportunity to try to stick that label to him.
"He won the leadership because he was endorsed by Campaign Life and other pro-life groups and now that he is leader he's changed his opinion, he's done a 180," Matthews said Thursday. "I think he owes it to people to explain how it is that he changed his opinion so dramatically."
Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod said the Liberals are trying to bait her party with the bubble-zone legislation.
"It looks like another typical Kathleen Wynne trap ... that's not going to work," MacLeod told reporters Thursday, adding that the PCs are committed to the bill to stop harassment around abortion clinics.
MacLeod put forward Thursday's motion to pass the bill immediately. Asked why she thinks the Liberals rejected the move, she said, "I suspect it's because they want to play politics and they want to do this divisive stuff."
Other critics on the right are accusing the Liberals of trying to distract voters.
It's to the Liberals' political advantage to keep the abortion clinic safe zone bill grinding through the Legislature, said political scientist Paul Thomas of Carleton University.
Once pro-life forces start mobilizing against the bill by presenting petitions or holding demonstrations, "I think it will become increasingly challenging for members of the Conservative caucus to support it," Thomas said.
The abortion issue will likely test Brown's ability to put together a winning coalition of voters in the upcoming election.
"If he appears to be too supportive of the social conservative side, he risks alienating the centrists," said Thomas. "If he appears too centrist, he risks alienating the social conservatives."
But what was the motive of the PCs in trying to fast-track the bill through the Legislature? Were they truly wanting to get the protections around abortion clinics in place immediately? Or were they wanting to avoid uncomfortable debates in their own ranks that could arise during committee hearings?
The move "smells of political games," said Attorney General Yasir Naqvi in an interview Thursday. "They just want to sweep the issue under the rug and not engage in a conversation and look at the merits of the bill."
"I think they're panicked," said Naqvi. "It's a divisive issue in their caucus and in their own political party."
Watching the Liberals and PCs fight it out, the New Democrats are left shaking their heads.
"Wynne's team seems to have decided that if she can't score political points against her opponents, she's not interested in protecting women's safe access to medical care," said NDP MPP Jennifer French in a statement.
French said the Legislature had a chance Thursday to pass a law that would have protected women trying to access abortion services. "It didn't happen because the Wynne Liberals and Patrick Brown Conservatives chose, instead, to play politics with women's rights."