by Tim Harper
Wendy Robbins called it the elephant in the room and she was not going to give up the podium before she aired her harsh criticism of her government’s assisted dying legislation.
But her effort to get a full debate on the contentious Liberal legislation at the party’s first post-election convention led to only acrimony and high emotion … and left her briefly in tears as she recalled the deaths of her parents.
It drew the ire of a cabinet minister and an MP. Most importantly, it unhinged a bid to keep this Liberal gathering as a celebratory party that would better feature paper hats and streamers, not debate.
Robbins, a law professor at the University of New Brunswick and policy chair for the Liberals’ national women’s commission, was right about the elephant in the room here.
It was her commission that worked hard to push wording on assisted dying to delegates at the last Liberal convention, but the bill her party crafted, she told the room, was nowhere near as progressive as had been recommended.
She had support in the room.
But her bid to get an emergency resolution to the floor will fail because this is a party that wants a public show of unity and wants to leave the bickering and infighting to the gang of Conservatives meeting simultaneously, further west, in Vancouver.
There is likely not a Liberal MP or cabinet minister at this convention who has not received some type of earful from constituents who find the bill overly restrictive, who want the right to give advanced directives of their assisted death or do not understand the wording of a bill that says death must be “reasonably foreseeable.”
That wording, Robbins told delegates to the Liberal women’s commission, is “nuts.”
The grassroots deserve to be heard and it is a democratic right to say what we want to happen, she reasoned. Politicians need to hear this and get back in touch with the grassroots, she said.
But then a very un-Liberal thing happened, or at least something this party has worked hard under Justin Trudeau to make appear to be un-Liberal. The women’s commission meeting was closed to the media,
as were all first-day meetings at this convention. I wandered in anyway – the door was open and it had been anticipated that the assisted dying issue would be aired here.
For 90 minutes of dry debate on issues of no interest but to those in the room, I stood, large media tag in full view, and no one was bothered by my presence. In fact, many in the room came over to chat.
There was no subterfuge involved.
Then, when things got contentious, the no-media rule was suddenly enforced and I and a late-arriving CBC colleague were ushered out the door.
Before we were shown the door, Robbins told the room there would be no legislative void if the court’s June 6 deadline was missed. That drew an audible “oh, come on,” from Aboriginal Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and an intervention from Kanata-Carleton MP Karen McCrimmon.
McCrimmon said delegates in the room were being given false hope if they thought that a resolution from this convention was somehow going to amend legislation that could win final Commons approval as early as Monday.
The bill may not be perfect, McCrimmon told the room, but the government had to push this legislation forward.
Afterward, Bennett offered praise for Robbins’ work, then told me: “I’m not sure this forum was supposed to be a tutorial from the professor from UNB.”
Outside the room, Robbins tearfully recounted the deaths of her grandfather and both parents.
Her mother desperately “wanted to go,” she said, but she would not have been eligible for assisted death under this legislation.
“If it (Bill C-14) isn’t stopped here, it will be stopped in the Senate and if it isn’t stopped there it will be stopped on a charter challenge in court, or all three of the above,” Robbins said.
“It’s just a matter of time.”
It won’t be stopped here, but Robbins did force an accounting of a flawed bill even if the need for unity will keep a lid on such debate.
Maybe it’s old-fashioned to think a debate could break out on an issue as fundamental as life and death, whether the government was on a court-prescribed deadline or not. But, of course, I wasn’t even supposed to see the limited debate in the closed room in the first place.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@nutgraf1
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services