OTTAWA — The Liberal government is backing away from a decision to whip a vote on physician-assisted death, saying now that it will wait to make that call after its MPs have had a chance to discuss the matter in caucus.
"It's premature to take a position right now, because the committee hasn't issued its report and we don't have a bill yet," Olivier Duchesneau, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's spokesman, told The Huffington Post Canada Friday.
Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc speaks with media in Ottawa in February. (Photo: Matthew Usherwood/CP)
During the election campaign, Trudeau promised his MPs free votes on anything that isn't related to the party's election platform, budget matters or rights guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a Criminal Code prohibition on physician-assisted dying, ruling that it breached an individual's right to life, liberty and security of the person as guaranteed under the charter.
Some Liberals, including Rob Oliphant, the chair of the special joint committee studying how the federal government should respond to the top court's ruling, said they agree with the government assessment that this is a charter issue.
But others, such as P.E.I. MP Wayne Easter and Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, said they want to see what is in the bill and the committee's report before deciding how they want to vote and whether a whipped party vote would be unfair.
Conclusion was 'premature'
LeBlanc suggested Friday that he was wrong to declare a whipped vote before the committee had issued its report and the government had produced a bill.
"We decided to delay the decision about whether or not it's a whipped vote. It's premature to come to a final conclusion like that," he told The Globe.
"We're going to discuss the bill and the committee report in our caucus, and we will make the decision as to how the bill will be handled once the bill is introduced in the House."
Conservatives, New Democrats to vote conscience
The Tories and the NDP plan to allow their members a free vote on the matter.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who faces a leadership review in two months, said he was "very surprised" to see the Liberals whip their caucus on such a "delicate" subject.
"I have the intention of letting our caucus [be] free to vote their conscience on this," he told reporters.
NDP MP Murray Rankin, one of the joint committee's vice-chairs, told HuffPost earlier this week that he believes the government's legislation will address issues that are much broader than what was covered by the top court in Carter vs. Canada.
There are differences in how the Supreme Court's decision can be implemented, Rankin said.
"Are people with mental illness … covered? People under a certain age, are they ever going to have the access to this conditional right? People should be able to vote their conscience and see if we got the balance right when the bill comes forward," he said.
The federal government has until June 6 to come up with a new law recognizing the right of clearly consenting adults enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help in ending their lives.
With files from The Canadian Press and previous files
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