Sunday, May 22, 2016
"The Party of the Charter" and Parliamentary Democracy
As a former member of the Interior Health Authority’s Clinical Ethics Committee, I can attest that assisted dying is one of the mostly deeply controversial and difficult subjects under the Sun, which makes the way it has been handled all the more deplorable.
The Liberals’ “Motion 6” (now mercifully withdrawn) would have reduced the number of days available to the Opposition to introduce motions, as well as imposing stricter time limits on those motions. Members of cabinet or parliamentary secretaries — all Liberals — would have been granted additional powers to control the business of the House as well. Under the proposed new rules, we might have seen W.A.C. Bennett-style all-night sittings.
Why this suddenly draconian posture towards Parliament, which also resulted in the Prime Minister’s angry and impulsive tussle, known as “elbowgate”? The Liberals were deeply annoyed and embarrassed when , at the beginning of the same week, a surprise vote by the opposition caused the Liberal government to almost lost a vote on Monday on its own legislation to change Air Canada rules. Furthermore, the government felt that it had to pass the doctor-assisted dying legislation, Bill C-14, by the end of the week. (The Court has said that after June 6 the existing law banning physician –assisted death will be of no further effect, as it had been struck down in the Carter decision back in February 2015.) Hence Trudeau’s impatience and petulance.
That much has been said often and elsewhere. But a couple of additional observations are needed in order to complete the picture. First, who is to blame for all this confusion and legal uncertainty? Perhaps I am just in a diplomatic mood, but I would apportion the blame just about equally between the Conservatives, the Liberals, and the Supreme Court itself. The Conservatives, because Stephen Harper’s strict political party rule about avoiding socially conservative causes in this socially liberal country was rigidly adhered to for electoral purposes—even if it meant deliberately ignoring the Supreme Court decision for a full 8 1/2 months before the October 19, 2015 election. The Liberals, because even though the Conservatives had ragged the puck for that long, Grits were well aware of that fact the moment they took office, and therefore should have anticipated the time pressures that would arise. The Supreme Court, because the Justices should have appreciated that a bill of this nature would require extensive debate as every MP expressed their constituents and their own consciences, canvassed medical opinion, and attracted considerable “sober second thought” from the Senate. (The Court had initially suspended its judgment for 12 months in an election year; then it gave the new Government a paltry 4-month extension of that deadline on top of the Liberals’ already overflowing agenda.)
Second, one must add to this litany of institutional failings the background problem of Charterphilia, a disease which is rampant throughout English Canada. Its symptoms are most acute in the Liberal Party (“the Party of the Charter”) and in the heart and mind of its young leader: a pulse-quickening reverence for Charter rights and a belief in the near-papal infallibility of the Supreme Court's edicts about that Holy Writ. That it was a Charter Right that was at issue , and that the Supreme Court had Spoken on its meaning, no doubt fuelled the prime minister’s outrage at the continued stalling tactics of the Opposition and contributed to his remarkable lack of respect for Parliament. (Remember Prince Hamlet, who was also egged on by his father's ghost to occasional impetuosity.)
The truth, however, is that Opposition Parliamentarians were dealing appropriately with a profoundly political issue, a fact to which this Government in particular had become especially and determinedly blind.