Margaret Somerville

Liberals backtrack on whipped vote for assisted dying

By 
  • February 24, 2016

OTTAWA - In the face of political and public criticism, a Liberal directive that would have forced its MPs to vote the party line on an upcoming assisted-dying bill has been put on hold.

Government House Leader Dominic Leblanc told the Globe and Mail Feb. 20 he had suspended a decision on a whipped vote until after the report of a special parliamentary committee is tabled in the House of Commons. The report was due Feb. 25

Earlier this month both Leblanc and Liberal Whip Andrew Leslie said the vote would be whipped — meaning Liberal MPs would be forced to support the party line — because the bill represented a Charter of Rights issue. That announcement sparked criticism from the opposition benches and from within the Liberal caucus itself as several MPs argued that assisted suicide was a matter of conscience and should be subject to a free vote.

The Conservatives and NDP have said they will allow a free vote for their MPs.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper, a member of the joint committee, said it was “remarkable” Leblanc would call for a whipped vote before the committee’s report was even finished. He said the committee met “in good faith and tried to take their role and their responsibility seriously.”

Whipping the vote raised “the spectre that the outcome was predetermined all along and this special committee was nothing more than a façade to allegedly consult broadly but come back with a recommendation that supported the government’s predetermined agenda,” Cooper said.

“It’s tough to have any other conclusion than the fix was in.”

Although pleased the Liberals have at least temporarily backed away from a whipped vote, opponents of assisted suicide are concerned the Liberals have signalled their intention to table a bill that fails to offer sufficient protection for the vulnerable and for the conscience rights of health care workers.

The executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition said there would be no need to whip a vote on a tightly crafted bill with adequate protections for the vulnerable. Alex Schadenberg is concerned that “the bill is going to be more radical, more wide-open than some of the caucus members are willing to accept.”

“It was very premature to think this is something they could impose on the Liberal caucus,” said Schadenberg.

“Their argument this is a Charter issue is false. The Supreme Court did not go so far as to make it a Charter issue.”

NDP MP Murray Rankin, also a member of the parliamentary committee, said “everybody should be allowed to vote on an unwhipped basis.”

He called the matter “very sensitive” and said it “goes well beyond the Charter.”

He said he has been trying to ensure the report includes a recommendation for implementing a national strategy to make palliative care available across the country.

“I have argued palliative care is part of that package,” Rankin said. “I’m very worried so few can have access to palliative care.”

Margaret Somerville, the founding director of the McGill University Centre for Medicine, Ethics and the Law, said MPs should not be forced to support assisted-suicide legislation “when they have ethical or conscience objections to doing so.”

“Respect for Members of Parliament’s freedom of conscience is not only necessary to respect them, it is also required to protect Canadians and can be the last such protection against doing them serious harm or other serious wrongdoing,” she said.

That view was supported by Johanne Brownrigg of Campaign Life Coalition Ottawa.

“This is a conscience rights vote, equivalent to capital punishment, abortion or taking a country to war,” she said.

Brownrigg is concerned that the pending law may go further than what is required by the Supreme Court decision.

“This is huge,” she said. “Very few pieces of legislation irrevocably change a society and this is one of them.”

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