OTTAWA – Confusion reigned Tuesday as the Harper government struggled to offer a coherent response to a landmark Supreme Court ruling that struck down the ban on doctor-assisted dying.
The government sent a series of contradictory signals on two key questions: would it invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the ruling or would it ask for an extension on the court-imposed 12-month deadline for crafting a new law?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper twice dodged when asked to assure Canadians that he won’t use the constitutional override provision to reinstate the ban on medically assisted suicide.
“We are taking a look at this (court) decision. It is on a matter that is obviously very delicate and very divisive among Canadians,” Harper told the House of Commons.
“We will listen to Canadians from all backgrounds and do that before deciding how to respond to the decision.”
A prime ministerial spokesperson was later dispatched to clarify that the government does not intend to invoke the notwithstanding clause.
Harper’s ambiguity followed mixed messages earlier in the day about the deadline the court has imposed for crafting a new law that recognizes the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help to end their lives.
Bob Dechert, parliamentary secretary to the justice minister, initially told the Commons that 12 months is not enough time to deal with such a sensitive issue, particularly since an election will shutter Parliament for two or three months in the fall.
But he later backtracked, saying the government intends to meet the deadline.
The confusion in government ranks was prompted by a Liberal motion calling for creation of a special multi-party committee to consult and report back to Parliament by mid-summer with a proposed framework for a new law.
The Conservatives opposed the motion, which was eventually defeated by a vote of 146-132, arguing that broader consultation with Canadians is required. Yet the government offered only a vague idea of its own consultation plans.
Dechert said it would entail online submissions and public meetings and would be launched soon, followed by introduction of proposed legislation, which would then be examined through the normal committee process.
Kicking off debate on the motion, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said parliamentarians have a duty to respond to the court’s ruling and can do so within the 12-month time limit if they get the ball rolling immediately.
“There is no advantage to delaying debate,” Trudeau said.
However, the governing Conservatives may see an electoral advantage in delaying at least until after the election any action on an explosive issue that is likely to divide its caucus and its support base.
A number of Tory backbenchers have openly railed against what they see as the top court usurping the role of elected legislators and have urged the government to invoke the notwithstanding clause. Several have called for an extension on the court-imposed deadline.
NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin speculated that the government wants to avoid taking action before the election so as not to alienate “the religious right” and to allow Tory candidates to stick to their own personal views without contradicting government policy.
“It sounds and it smells a lot like again they’re playing politics with that,” she said.
During Tuesday’s debate, Dechert’s comments reflected an obvious level of Conservative discomfort with the court ruling.
He enumerated what he called the many risks involved in legalizing doctor-assisted dying, including elderly or disabled people being pressured by family or doctors to prematurely end their lives or people opting for doctor-assisted suicide on the basis of faulty diagnoses.
Trudeau revealed Tuesday that he personally believes the court was right to strike down the ban on doctor-assisted suicide, based on his own experience when his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, was dying.
Trudeau has previously confirmed that his father, who had also been diagnosed with early stage dementia, chose not to receive treatment for advanced prostate cancer.