The Liberals are backing away from their decision to whip the vote on the government's upcoming legislation on doctor-assisted dying, now saying it was "premature" to determine how the vote will go without yet seeing a bill.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc said the decision about whether MPs will be forced to toe the party line will now be made after a parliamentary committee studying the issue releases its report next week, and not until the bill is drafted.
"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," Mr. LeBlanc said.
"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."
Mr. LeBlanc told The Globe last week that the vote will be whipped in support of the legislation because it is a Charter of Rights and Freedoms issue, after the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down the Criminal Code ban on assisted dying for grievously ill and suffering adults.
But because of the sensitive subject matter, some Liberal MPs have questioned whether it is a true Charter issue – or one of conscience. It's possible ministers and parliamentary secretaries will still face a whipped vote, but not necessarily all MPs.
"We reflected on the comments of our colleagues and some people in the public and we decided that that decision can be put off until we have a committee report, but also until we have the actual text of a bill," Mr. LeBlanc said.
The Supreme Court recently gave the Liberal government a four-month extension until June to draft new legislation. The court said the previous laws should no longer apply to adults who have a "grievous and irremediable" medical condition that causes "endless suffering" and who clearly consent to ending their lives.
The parliamentary committee set up to write recommendations for the government is set to release its report next Thursday. The committee, made up of MPs and senators from the three major parties, heard hours of testimony from dozens of witnesses on all sides of the debate, including those pushing for advanced consent for degenerative illnesses, such as dementia.
"Discussing how ultimately a vote will be handled, in our view, distracts from the substantive decisions that Parliament will have to make around a sensitive issue and a complicated issue that flows from the Supreme Court decision," Mr. LeBlanc said.
"We think it's more valuable to have a substantive conversation, a respectful conversation, around the actual elements of a piece of legislation, then spend our time discussing how ultimately a vote will happen three months from now."
Some Liberal MPs say they want more information about the legislation before deciding how to vote.
Robert-Falcon Ouellette, a Cree MP who represents Winnipeg Centre, said there are significant issues relating to suicide in indigenous communities, and he wants to evaluate the bill with his community and with aboriginal elders.
"We're going to have to be very careful not to enable people to believe that this is something that becomes acceptable and, in fact, in some way valorized," he said. "We're going to have to tread very carefully."
Veteran MP Wayne Easter, who represents Malpeque in PEI, said the Liberal caucus still needs to discuss the legislation as a group.
"It's getting a little ahead of the game, at this stage, to concede to the fact that we might be whipped," Mr. Easter said. "I think that will have to be talked about in caucus."