OTTAWA - The federal government will not introduce new legislation to govern doctor-assisted dying before the expected October federal election, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said Monday.
Rather, said MacKay, the government will soon reveal details of its long-promised public consultations on the emotionally charged issue, noting that Justice department officials are working behind the scenes to frame the discussion.
"The process will be announced in terms of the consultation," MacKay told The Canadian Press in an interview Monday.
"You should not expect that there will be any legislation certainly before the election, no."
The Supreme Court struck down the prohibition on physician-assisted suicide last February.
It gave the federal government 12 months to craft a new law recognizing the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help to end their lives.
MacKay acknowledged that time is running out, but says he needs to tread cautiously because of the sensitivity of the issue at hand.
"It's very much the balancing act of the diametrically opposed views that many people have on this subject matter. Hence the necessity to proceed cautiously, respectfully and to do so in a way that will be inclusive of those various competing views," he said.
"It is a very sensitive issue, a very personal issue for many, many people, and it has far reaching implications to say the least."
He said he has consulted with at least four provincial justice ministers as well as some of his international counterparts.
"We're not going to be too hasty in drafting a bill without having the opportunity to really hear from a wide variety of stakeholders," he said. "This is a bill that a lot of other countries are watching as well."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to consult widely on doctor-assisted death, but the government has not disclosed how it would canvass the views of Canadians on the subject.
With Parliament scheduled to sit just six more weeks before an extended break for the summer and an anticipated fall election, the government has only three or four months in which to introduce, debate and pass a new law.
Time is so short that Conservative MP Steven Fletcher suspects the most likely upshot is there will be no new federal law, leaving provinces to fill the vacuum with a patchwork of laws, within the parameters of the top court's ruling.
"It's quite possible there will be no federal law," Fletcher said in an interview.
Indeed, Fletcher, who has championed legalization of medically assisted suicide, said he believes it's already too late to meet the court-imposed deadline.
"I don't see where there's the time to pass legislation between now and Feb. 6 that would deal with this issue. I just don't see how it can be done."
MacKay was asked whether he had ruled out asking the high court for an extension. "We haven't contemplated that yet," he replied.
And what happens if the Conservatives are no longer in power come October?
"It's of course not incumbent just on our government, it's incumbent upon any government to respond to the Supreme Court," MacKay said.
"Whether that is a realistic time frame remains to be seen."
The Harper Conservatives voted two months ago against a Liberal motion that called for a special, multi-party committee that would consult and report back to Parliament by mid-summer with a proposed framework for a new law.
At the time, the government promised that it would launch its own consultation process.
Bob Dechert, parliamentary secretary to the health minister, argued that consultation by a committee wouldn't be broad enough to do the issue justice.
"In fact, we are suggesting tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Canadians need to be heard on this issue," he said, promising that "meaningful consultations" via the Internet, public meetings and other means would be launched "very soon."
Not another word has been heard about the consultation since.
Opposition MPs have suggested the Conservatives are dragging their feet, reluctant to take action before the election on a issue that could alienate some of their supporters — including some incumbent Tory MPs who've called on the government to invoke the constitutional notwithstanding clause to override the court's ruling.
Fletcher acknowledged that most politicians "would rather have their eyes scratched out" than deal with the issue of doctor-assisted dying.
He said that's why two private member's bills he introduced on the subject two years ago have gone nowhere fast.