CALGARY – Albertans’ attitudes about divisive social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and doctor-assisted suicide continue to shift, with most provincial residents now “more progressive than traditional in their thinking,” says a new poll.
According to a Lethbridge College telephone survey of more than 1,000 adults this September, Albertans have a “progressive” attitude on a number of social questions.
The poll indicates Calgarians and southern Albertans from outside of the city are slightly more likely to say such social matters are personal decisions.
Lethbridge College political scientist Faron Ellis said although this appears counterintuitive due to the region’s reputation for social conservatism, he believes it can be explained by the contingent of southern Albertans who could be categorized as libertarians – people who have an entrepreneurial, individualist mindset.
“It’s more choice,” said Ellis, who oversaw the poll process. “Alberta tends to be on the leading edge when it comes to individual choice.”
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Across the province, 74 per cent of respondents agree Ottawa should continue to give same-sex marriages equal legal standing with traditional marriages. That’s up from 66 per cent in 2009.
“We’ve measured this in Lethbridge for 12 years and we’ve seen a complete reversal,” Ellis said on the same-sex marriage question. “Where it was two-to-one opposed, now it is two-to-one supportive.”
A strong majority of Albertans, 81 per cent, also say abortion is a matter of choice that should be decided between a woman and her doctor. That compares to 78 per cent in 2009.
There’s also been a significant change when it comes to Albertans’ attitudes on doctor-assisted suicide.
Only 64 per cent of Albertans said people with terminal illness should be allowed to legally access doctor-assisted suicide in 2009. That percentage now stands at 76 per cent.
Albertans also look slightly more favourably upon medical marijuana use compared to past years, but only 45 per cent of provincial residents believe cannabis should be decriminalized for recreational purposes.
Support for capital punishment for those convicted of first-degree murder has remained relatively flat, sitting at 60 per cent now compared with 59 per cent in 2009 – although people in southern Alberta, outside of Calgary, are more likely to favour the death penalty.
“Albertans are more progressive than traditional in their thinking on this cluster of issues,” concludes the poll.
The poll also found people who described themselves as very religious held onto the most traditional beliefs. On partisan grounds, Wildrose, Alberta PC and federal Conservative supporters were more likely to be traditional than Liberal and NDP supporters.
Ellis said although Wildrose supporters are more likely to be traditional on these social issues – and the Wildrose formed the official Opposition by virtually sweeping southern Alberta – the poll also found that both Calgary and southern Alberta have more “progressive” views in many categories.
For instance, Calgarians are more likely to support same-sex marriage or abortion choice than other parts of the province.
In southern Alberta, 82 per cent of those polled believe terminally ill people should be able to ask their doctor for help to end their life – higher support than the Alberta public as a whole.
Kris Wells, a researcher at the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, said he would use caution in interpreting results relating to specific regions of the province, since the poll sample size there was small.
However, Wells said the real story is how Alberta has changed. Just nine years ago, then-premier Ralph Klein vowed to put every possible obstacle in the way of same-sex marriage in Alberta, saying he would invoke the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause.
Now, said Wells, “it’s a non-issue.”
“We’re moving away from our traditional understanding of the world,” Wells added.
University of Calgary cultural studies professor Rebecca Sullivan agreed: “It’s amazing how easily and quickly we turn the tables.”
In Lethbridge, Ellis noted these social issues have never driven major voting swings. Economic issues always trump social issues.
He said the only time that changes is when the economy is doing so well, voters have time to think about something other than finances.
Ellis warned however, a lack of trust on social issues could turn some voters off a particular political party.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The survey of Albertans has also been statistically weighted to better reflect the demographic distribution of the population for gender and age.