National Column: Five unexpected developments in Bill C-14 debate

by Chantal Hébert

The time-sensitive production of a Charter-compliant federal law on medically assisted death was always going to be a logistical challenge for whomever was elected to power last October.

On that basis, the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government missed Monday’s court-imposed deadline to prevent a legal void is probably the least unexpected development in the legislative saga that has consumed MPs and senators over the first session of the new Parliament.

Here are five developments that were less predictable.

1. The Liberal bill is not 100-per-cent Charter-proof: On the campaign trail, Trudeau cast himself as a champion of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

He served his candidates advance notice that, on his watch, dissenting votes on abortion and gay rights would not be tolerated. Yet when push came to shove, the Liberal government was reluctant to walk the talk of compliance.

Bill C-14 is a piece of legislation that begs to be challenged. A host of top legal experts has warned that it falls short of the threshold set by the Supreme Court. Trudeau, if he were still in opposition, might have declined to support it. Moreover, by taking the restrictive route, the government forsook a potentially larger parliamentary consensus in favour of its bill.

2. The assisted-death discussion is not a replay of the abortion debate: The parallels between the two are overstated. There are more Canadians – including some social conservatives – who want as much latitude as possible to exercise the right to a medically assisted death than those who support the right of women to exercise their reproductive freedom.

That would suggest that provinces that drag their feet on providing access to medically assisted death would do so at greater risk of incurring widespread ire among their electorate than they did by sitting on their hands on abortion services. The threat of a patchwork approach to medically assisted death – absent a legislated federal framework – may be overrated.

3. Fears that giving MPs more freedom to vote as they see fit would lead to a parliamentary free-for-all are wildly exaggerated: To a man and woman, the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May voted against bill C-14. An overwhelming majority of Liberals supported their government’s plan.

By all indications, their votes were informed by discussions with their respective critics. When it comes to breaking ranks with their caucus, most MPs do tend to choose their battles. Freeing them to decide how to vote mostly shifts the onus of weighting the pros and cons of their decision on their own shoulders. In most cases, they are happy to follow their party’s guidance.

4. The Liberal government’s purported commitment to democratic reform is as selective as its embrace of Charter rights. Loosening the party’s control over the Commons does not come naturally to its House leader Dominic Leblanc. His instincts are not terribly different from those of his Conservative predecessors.

The government initially decreed that the vote on Bill C-14 – because it was Charter-related – would be whipped only to then agree to treat it as a free vote. (One can only wonder how the Liberals would otherwise have handled the paradox of forcing their MPs to vote for a bill of dubious constitutional standing!) The government rejected most of the opposition input – including every substantial amendment to the bill that came its way. It used closure repeatedly to curtail debate.

5. As counterintuitive as it may seem, a more independent Senate may force more democracy (and collegiality) on the House of Commons: What is certain is that Bill C-14 gave the maligned upper house a much-needed opportunity to shine in a capacity other than that of parliamentary villain. The high calibre of its deliberations confounded many of its critics.

For the first time in years, the upper house earned some truly positive coverage.

It is early days but, based on the assisted-death debate, it is possible to postulate that the more the Liberal government uses its majority to truncate debate in the Commons, the more scrutiny it can expect in the Senate. To earn the respect of a less partisan upper house, the government may have to show more respect to due process in the House of Commons.

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

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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