The Liberal government has used its power to cut short the debate on its physician-assisted dying bill, a move intended to speed the legislation along as the Supreme Court of Canada’s June 6 deadline looms. Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc introduced a motion on Wednesday that imposed a time limit on debate after 2 1/2 days of extended hours in Parliament. The motion passed with support from the Liberals, but not the Conservatives and New Democrats. Only one Liberal MP, Winnipeg Centre’s Robert-Falcon Ouellette, voted against it.
“This is an important issue, and sometimes these things can’t be rushed,” Mr. Ouellette, who does not support the bill, said after the vote.
The motion forced a decision on the government’s Bill C-14, which then easily passed the second-reading phase by a vote of 235-75 with support from all parties – including the Liberals, 20 Conservative MPs and all but one NDP MP who was present, Christine Moore. It will now be studied clause by clause by a parliamentary committee, which will potentially make amendments to the legislation – although both it and a Senate committee are already hearing from witnesses who are currently prestudying the bill.
The Liberal time-limit motion caused a stir in the House of Commons, with opposition MPs accusing the government of curtailing their rights on one of the most important issues they face.
“I am absolutely outraged by this,” Conservative MP Blaine Calkins said in the House. “This is an abomination. It violates my privileges as a member of Parliament.”
Fellow Conservative Peter Kent said the government was “behaving as though it is a prankster in a model parliament.”
NDP House Leader Peter Julian called the move “shameful” and accused the Liberals of reneging on a previous commitment.
“The opposition parties were very clear that we wanted to debate the issue throughout the week. That was the initial government offer. Now, what we are seeing is a shameful backtracking from the government,” he said.
But Mr. LeBlanc said the government offered to extend debate all night and into the early morning hours on Tuesday – and that motion was rejected by opposition MPs. He pointed out that 84 MPs spoke during the extended debates, which lasted for more than 21 hours, and that two Conservative MPs even addressed the Commons twice. He noted that amendments take place at the committee stage, and the bill will be back for a debate and vote in the House of Commons again.
“I think that the opposition is being irresponsible by preventing the orderly progression of this bill through the House of Commons so that we can get it to the Senate and allow them to do their work,” Mr. LeBlanc said in an interview.
He said it’s essential the bill passes both houses of Parliament by June 6 to prevent a “legal vacuum” in Canada. After that date, there would be no federal laws regarding physician-assisted dying, although the Supreme Court’s ruling would still stand.
“On June 6, we are in an untenable position, both for patients, for medical practitioners and vulnerable persons,” Mr. LeBlanc said.
The Liberal government is under increasing pressure to pass its bill, which some have criticized for taking a narrow approach to the high court’s February, 2015, decision, when it struck down the country’s laws against physician-assisted dying. That ruling said consenting adults with a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition, who face intolerable suffering, should be allowed to end their lives with the help of a medical professional.
The Liberals’ legislation further defines “grievous and irremediable” as an incurable illness, disease or disability, and stipulates that a patient’s “natural death must be reasonably foreseeable” to qualify for the procedure.
Independent Liberal Senator Serge Joyal, a constitutional expert, told a Senate committee on Wednesday that the bill will face court challenges if it is not amended. “Your bill is in clear contradiction with the interpretation of the Supreme Court,” he told Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who defended the legislation as compliant with both the Charter of Rights and the court’s ruling.