WHIPPED VOTES, TIME ALLOCATION, C-14 AND COUNTERINTUITIVITY

It must be difficult for Conservative Members of Parliament to vote “nay” on Liberal Government Motions of Time Allocation, with a straight face.

Time Allocation, which limits further debate on a bill to a specified number of days or hours was imposed twice recently—May 4 on C-14 re: Physician Assisted Dying and then again on May 10 on the Budget Implementation Bill.

It would be difficult, certainly for veteran Conservative Members to argue that democracy was suddenly under attack or that the majority was stifling the Opposition’s right to speak to a measure, when in government those same CPC Members used their majority over 100 times to limit debate. Time Allocation became a routine process; rarely, if ever, in the later stages of the 41st Parliament was debate allowed to extinguish naturally.

Similarly, the Liberal veterans, who felt so hard done by and compromised by the former government’s high handed tactics, now seem all too eager to bring in Closure’s only slightly less intrusive cousin to expedite votes now that is they who are tabling the bills.

The ramifications and importance of the two recent time allocation motions are very different and significant. C-15, the Budget Implementation Act, is a confidence motion and therefore invariably a whipped vote on all sides of the House. The Trudeau Government promised to be more respectful of democracy and allow more free votes. However, traditional confidence measures are exempted from the pledge to liberate caucus members from voting with the government.

One can question the legitimacy and value of continuing debate on any vote that is going to be whipped by all parties. The debate is largely meaningless. The parties, days ago, have immovably staked out their positions. Nobody could possibly be persuaded by any arguments advanced in the continuation of debate. All members will simply vote as instructed by their whips and House Leaders.

I am not condoning time allocation, only cynically explaining the general value of debate in the contrived theater known as our National Parliament.

C-14, the Government’s response to the Supreme Court decision on assisted dying, is another matter entirely. Ironically, another exemption to the Liberal pledge to make whipped votes the exception and not the norm was matters of shared values protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Arguably, since the prohibitions on assisted death were struck down as a violation of the Charter, the Government could have imposed a whipped vote on the legislation it drafted in response.

However, on such an emotional matter, so deeply ensconced in ethical and personal values and beliefs, most pundits, including myself, argued that a free vote was mandated. And so the Liberal House Leader modified his original position; all parties may and did vote freely at second reading on C-14.

I find time allocation on free votes especially troubling. It is a rare opportunity that a backbench MP is forced to think for himself; generally, they will just vote as instructed. But a free vote requires deliberation and information. It is not only possible but I would suggest probable that one or more thoughtful MPs, who diligently followed the debate and all sides of a complicated issue would be persuaded by one or more of the cogent positions put forward by the many thoughtful speakers, who presented very different positions regarding this complicated matter.

On the other hand, the clock is ticking. There are rare times when matters of public safety or disruption of essential services actually require an expedited vote. C-14 is comparable; if no legislation is passed by June 5, a legal vacuity will exist and there will be neither requirements for, nor prohibitions against, an assisted death. A month is not a long time to get a bill through three readings plus committee hearings in each of the two houses of Parliament. Time is of the essence. When all of the free votes were counted, all but one Liberal and one NDP Member voted in favour; the vast majority of CPC Members voted: “nay”.

Reading some to their speeches, it is clear that many Conservatives have what can be called technical or procedural concerns. Some are concerned that conscience rights of physicians, who object to participating, is not properly protected. Others argue that the process should have to be signed off by a Judge and that nurse practitioners should not be included in the two medical professionals required to approve.

However, the vote at Second Reading is a vote on the bill in principle. If one supports the general intent of legislation that is reflected by a positive vote, then allowing technical amendments to improve the mechanics of the bill. There are no doubt supporters of the bill, who support C-14 in principle, but will then introduce amendments extending the bill’s reach. Advanced directives and inclusion for those not facing a certain and immediate demise are likely amendments by those who generally support the bill but believe it should go farther.

Accordingly, the CPC members who voted against C-14 at Second Reading likely did so based on philosophical, not merely technical grounds (or at least some combination of philosophical and technical opposition). These votes are counter-intuitive. One can oppose euthanasia on moral grounds and/or C-14 because in your view it does not provide adequate protections for the vulnerable.

However, if the vote on C-14 were to fail, there would be NO law against assisted suicide and NO safeguards to protect the vulnerable. Certainly to those opposed, limited scope and protection is preferred to the legal vacuity that will exits on June 6 if no law is passed.

C-14 is not amending the sections of the Criminal Code prohibiting assisted dying; those sections have already been struck down. C-14 is an attempt to provide some parameters and at least some safeguards to a controversial procedure that will become completely legal in less than a month if C-14 fails. Defeating C-14 will not bring those former prohibitions back.

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