Column: Court does what timid Parliament would not

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At its root, the historic Supreme Court ruling on assisted suicide is all about freedom.

It is, as the court said so clearly in its written decision, about giving us end-of-life choices, the lack of which today it rightly calls “cruel.”

It is a decision we will all face one day. It will be faced by our loved ones; it is a question that Canadians have already debated themselves and it would seem the court has reflected the majority Canadian view.

But there will be no rush by our parliamentarians to join this debate or embrace this freedom.

Indeed, as Steven Fletcher, the former Conservative cabinet minister, says, MPs would rather scratch their eyes out than deal with assisted suicide.

It is this lack of courage by our parliamentarians that has brought us to this day.

Parliament is a risk-averse forum where fear of offending trumps the good and where emotional issues appear too heavy a lift for most.

It’s a sure bet there is a greater percentage of MPs opposed to the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision than the voting population as a whole.

This place is whiter, older, male dominated, more socially conservative and certainly more timid than the country as a whole.

Debating end-of-life issues is not the same as debating infrastructure spending and heartfelt and conflicting views will be held in every caucus room here.

But the problem will be most acute for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

There are many reasons Harper has been able to hold his grip on power, but one is his fierce resistance to having social conservative issues flare within his caucus and move onto the national stage.

Abortion debate was stifled. Same-sex marriage is an issue of the past, the government has even sent signals about softening marijuana possession penalties.

It’s hard to imagine Harper would be comfortable heading into an election campaign with a debate raging over assisted suicide.

Until Friday, the Conservatives opposed assisted suicide, calling the debate closed on a 2010 Commons vote and stressing improved palliative care. Expect that to change.

He may not like the court ruling, but it is difficult to remember the last time the government hailed a Supreme Court ruling. A 9-0 decision and public opinion will temper any urge within Harper’s cabinet to fight this court ruling.

He could invoke the notwithstanding clause, which overrides the court, becoming the first prime minister to ever bust the emergency glass to reach for the ultimate weapon.

Don’t bet on it.

He could remove this as an issue in the next federal campaign by crafting legislation, or fast-tracking Fletcher’s private member’s bill, with amendments, making it as restrictive as he could to tamp down any revolt from his voting base. But he would only have until June to do that, too short a timeline, particularly for an issue so complex and emotional.

Harper, could, in fact, do nothing and, if re-elected in the fall, simply let the court decision become the law of the land next February. That, however, leaves a vacuum that would have to be filled by the provinces, leaving us with a patchwork of assisted suicide access across the country, mirroring abortion access, which remains uneven a generation after the Supreme Court struck down that law.

If all three major parties signal support for the court decision, it removes this as a front-of-line issue in this year’s election campaign, except in those social conservative pockets held by Conservatives.

With jobs on the line, backbench Conservatives, some of whom turned to social media on the weekend to express their discomfort, would be unlikely to toe a party line that says their hands were tied by the court.

MPs need not fear speaking out on this issue. They would be better advised to face this head on and do their job.

There is not going to be a stampede to find doctors who will assist a death once this becomes law. No doctor can be compelled to assist a suicide if he or she is not comfortable with the law.

To take this off the table at election time, Harper should at least signal the safeguards he would put in place if, and when, he deals with a legislative response.

If the government feels the court has put it in a bind, it has only itself to blame.

It lacked the courage to deal with this in Parliament before being forced to do so by the nine justices.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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