Upcoming right-to-die bill prompts MPs to consider voting rights

MPs have begun to grapple with an issue that's sure to become a hallmark of the next Parliament: what does one do if a piece of legislation flies in the face of their fundamental beliefs?

Free votes on conscience issues 'in the interest of democracy, justice and good government': Komarnicki

Conservative MP Ed Komarnicki speaks with reporters after caucus. (CBC)

MPs have begun to grapple with an issue that's sure to become a hallmark of the next Parliament: what does one do if a piece of legislation flies in the face of their fundamental beliefs?

One Conservative MP proposed an answer in the form of a motion debated in the Commons Thursday: their parties should allow them to vote freely on matters of conscience.

Motions aren't binding on government, however the debate underscores that MPs are already seeking to shape how the Commons deals with the landmark Supreme Court decision earlier this year on physician-assisted suicide.

The legislation that will flow from that decision is a matter of conscience because it deals with the termination of life, and freely being able to debate that, without fear of party discipline or political repercussion is essential, said Ed Komarnicki, the Conservative MP who brought forward the motion.

"We should have legislation go forward, agreeing that this is precisely the place where hard and difficult decisions must be made, accepting the fact that members may have to struggle with their conscience to support a particular position," he said during Thursday evening's debate.

"In the interest of democracy, justice and good government, we want all members to vote on these issues freely and without impediment."

Doctor-assisted-suicide bill expected

In its February decision, the top court struck down the ban on physician-assisted suicide as unconstitutional, giving the government a year to draft new laws. The bill isn't expected until after the fall election.

While private member's bills and motions are often free votes, government legislation is most often not, with MPs expected to vote on party lines.

If they don't, there can be consequences: New Democrat MPs who sided with the Conservatives and against their party on the end of the gun registry ended up benched, with one eventually quitting caucus over the issue.

But that doesn't mean MPs can't vote their conscience, said NDP MP Alexandrine Latendresse, who said she found it disturbing that Conservative MPs felt otherwise.

"We are all free men and women, with a free will," she said.

The NDP has said it will support Komarnicki's motion.

For the Liberals, each vote is a matter of conscience, said MP Ted Hsu during the debate.

Liberal position unclear

"We have to figure out what we promised to our constituents. What did my party promise? What do scientists say? What is the best evidence? What are the consequences of the vote? What did we say in debate in the House? We have to juggle a lot of things, and all these votes are matters of conscience," he said.

It is not clear whether the Liberals will support the motion; party leader Justin Trudeau has previously told his caucus he expected all of them to vote in favour of upholding abortion rights, even if it went against their personal beliefs.

While Parliament awaits the government's formal answer to the Supreme Court ruling on assisted suicide, there are actually pieces of legislation allowing for it already before the Senate, introduced there by backbench Conservative MP Stephen Fletcher after the ruling in the hopes they would make it to the Commons before the summer break.

That's unlikely to happen as Parliament rises in three weeks and is not expected to return prior to the election call, It's equally possible that MPs will never get to vote on Komarnicki's motion.

MPs only debated Komarnicki's motion for an hour Thursday night. No date has been set for the second hour of debate or subsequent vote.

Komarnicki, who represents a Saskatchewan riding, is not seeking re-election.