Upcoming right-to-die legislation prompts MPs to consider their voting rights

Conservative MP for Souris Moose Mountain Ed Komarnicki is pictured in Ottawa, Nov.6, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld.
Conservative MP for Souris Moose Mountain Ed Komarnicki is pictured in Ottawa, Nov.6, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld.

OTTAWA – MPs will begin to grapple later Thursday with an issue that’s sure to become a hallmark of the next Parliament: what does one do if a piece of legislation flies in the face of their fundamental beliefs?

A Conservative private member’s motion that would allow members of Parliament to vote freely on matters of conscience is due to come up for debate in the House of Commons.

Motions aren’t binding on government, but the debate underscores that MPs are already laying the political groundwork to deal with the landmark Supreme Court decision earlier this year on physician-assisted suicide.

“There are issues of conscience, Supreme Court of Canada decisions, that deal with matters that are difficult and people have differences of views and differences of opinions on that,” said Conservative MP Ed Komarnicki, who introduced the motion.

“Members should all have, individually, the right to vote their conscience on those issues.”

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In February, the top court struck down the criminal ban on assisted suicide, giving the federal government a year to draft new laws.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay has begun informal consultations on what the legislation ought to look like and has repeatedly said a more formal process would be announced soon, but the legislation itself is not expected before the fall election.

The court decision provoked sharp reactions on Parliament Hill.

Some were so disturbed they called on the government to use the notwithstanding clause, a section of the Constitution that allows the government to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Many MPs showed up at the annual March for Life on Parliament Hill, whose anti-abortion theme was expanded this year to include protecting “all human life from the time of conception to natural death.”

Not all Conservatives are on that side of the debate, however.

Conservative MP Stephen Fletcher responded to the Supreme Court ruling by introducing legislation in the Senate that would allow for physician-assisted death.

Those bills likely won’t pass before Parliament rises for the summer and is subsequently dissolved for the fall election campaign.

It’s equally likely that MPs never get to vote on Komarnicki’s motion.

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The debate Thursday is only the first of two hours to be set aside for the motion. No date has been set for the second hour of debate or subsequent vote. Komarnicki, who represents a Saskatchewan riding, is not running for re-election.

The last time Parliament dealt with an issue of such moral significance was in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision striking down a ban on same-sex marriage.

The Liberal government cabinet supported the subsequent Civil Marriage Act, but backbenchers were given the opportunity to have a free vote. The Conservatives, who were then in opposition, as well as the Bloc Quebecois, also allowed their MPs to vote freely.

The New Democrats, in keeping with their party policy on gay rights issues, whipped the vote.

The NDP say that the vote on Komarnicki’s motion will be a free vote. Craig Scott, the party’s critic for democratic reform, said he considers all votes to be matters of conscience, decided upon by balancing several factors.

Whether the party will allow a free vote on eventual right-to-die legislation remains to be seen. The question will be whether that legislation upholds the constitutional rights identified by the Supreme Court or not, he said.

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