National Column: Nothing but grief for Liberals

by Chantal Hébert

Looking back on the debacle that attended the latest episode in the assisted-death debate in the House of Commons this week, it is easy to forget that Justin Trudeau’s government had a parliamentary consensus within its grasp when it set out to draft its now-contentious bill.

A committee of MPs and senators charted a roadmap this year that had the dual merit of meeting the constitutional threshold set by the Supreme Court and of enjoying multi-party support in both houses of

Its members did not expect the government to accept all their recommendations. They did not think their proposal to give access to assisted death to mature minors would make it into the bill. But few imagined that the cabinet would take a sledgehammer to the foundation they had laid out.

In the end, Bill C-14 borrows more from the restrictive minority report drafted by the Conservative MPs on the committee than from the majority recommendations.

That decision cost the government a crucial handful of credible advocates in both houses. Many of the parliamentarians who spent the most time working on the assisted-death file have come to the conclusion that having no law would be better than Bill C-14.

The government may yet win the final vote on its assisted-death legislation in the Commons but it has lost the debate over its merits. At least one court has already signalled that the federal legislation may
not survive a legal challenge.

That decisive Commons vote will take place under procedural duress. But the government lacks both the tools and the majority to similarly force the pace of the Senate. In the past, arm-twisting in the Commons has often resulted into more upper house resistance to controversial government legislation

Parliament stands adjourned for the next week. With only a handful of sitting days left before the court-imposed June 6 deadline to replace the current Criminal Code dispositions on assisted suicide, it would take an uncommon amount of Senate co-operation for a law to be passed before the target date. A government that started down this legislative path with a surplus of multi-party goodwill has now essentially depleted its supply.

All the above is a mild preview of what is in store for the Liberal bid to change the voting system in time for the 2019 election. That project is no less time-sensitive than the assisted-death issue – and even more adversarial.

Indeed, the two files contaminated each other this week, with toxic results for the climate in the Commons.

For here, too, the Trudeau government has shown a knack for turning allies into opponents.

By putting forward a process that gives the Liberal majority control over the outcome of the consultations, the government had succeeded in uniting against it opposition parties that otherwise bring opposite views to the debate.

The Conservatives were always going to fight electoral reform every inch of the way. They will use all means at their disposal to force the government to bring its plan to a national vote. The argument that fundamental changes to the voting system should not be left to the sole discretion of a government majority already resonates well beyond their ranks.

If the Liberals are to avoid losing another race against the parliamentary clock, if they are to have a realistic hope of securing Senate and public opinion support for the introduction in 2019 of a different voting system in the face of a Conservative pro-referendum crusade, they need to bring some of the other opposition parties under the tent. So far they have been doing the opposite.

The New Democrats and the Greens have historically been shortchanged by the first-past-the-poll system. From their perspective, this debate is a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity. If it ends on an impasse, the Liberals will drop the file for the foreseeable future.

The smaller parties have more incentives to make concessions to avoid a complete failure than the government itself.

Relinquishing control over the process by giving the opposition parity on the electoral reform committee would buy the Liberals much needed political cover from the Conservatives – at a relatively low cost.

After all, it is not as if the non-collegial template used for the assisted-death debate had brought the government anything but grief.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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