15 September 2014

No compromise: Trudeau's dubious defence of 'rights'

In a Westminster-style political system ordinary Members of Parliament have little leeway to vote as they like, as they are in virtually all cases bound by party discipline. If you are a member of the Conservative parliamentary caucus, you must vote with your caucus or face sanctions. Although both Canada and the (thus far) United Kingdom operate under this system, party discipline is more rigid in the True North than in the Sceptered Isle. However, even here in Canada ordinary party discipline will occasionally be relaxed if divisive moral issues are at stake. In 1976 Bill C-84 passed narrowly on a rare free vote in the House of Commons. Bill C-84 legally abolished capital punishment, with the party leaders allowing members to vote their conscience.

Thirteen years later the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proposed Bill C-43, An Act Respecting Abortion, intended to fill the legal vacuum created by the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1988 decision in R. v. Morgentaler, which invalidated Section 251 of the Canadian Criminal Code. Once again, because abortion was deemed a divisive moral issue, the political parties permitted a free vote, thereby avoiding the need to take a stand and risk alienating a segment of the electorate that might be needed at the ballot box. The bill passed the Commons, but it died in the Senate, Parliament’s so-called upper chamber. Although the appointed Senate rarely obstructs legislation approved by the popularly-elected Commons, in this case it did so because Senators were not bound by normal party discipline.

There is some wisdom in allowing representatives to vote according to conscience when confronted with an issue on which there is no popular consensus. Whether the controversial measure passes or is defeated, the party as a whole need not assume collective responsibility, thereby enabling it to focus on other potentially less divisive issues.

However, Justin Trudeau, whose late father served as Prime Minister for a decade and a half, seems to have abandoned this wisdom: Justin Trudeau says abortion rights trump MPs’ freedom to vote their conscience.

“I have had a lot of Liberals come up to me and say, ‘I don’t quite understand, isn’t the Liberal party about freedom and about defending people’s rights?’” Trudeau said in an interview with CBC’s The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright.

“Absolutely it is. And the rights that women have fought for over decades to be in control of their own bodies and to control their own reproductive health is not a right I’m going to brush aside to defend the freedom of speech or the freedom to vote a particular way for an MP.”

Trudeau has said that any Liberal MP, regardless of their personal beliefs, would have to vote against any proposed legislation that could limit a woman’s right to an abortion.

“If they vote in favour of restricting women’s access to abortion, that’s taking away their rights. And that is something that we will not accept in the Liberal party. We are the party of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that’s a serious, serious position that Liberals have to defend.

“It’s time the Liberal party actually defended rights,” he said.

There can be no doubt that Mr. Trudeau is sincere in his desire to defend human rights. Yet, as Mary Ann Glendon has pointed out, the use of claimed rights as a trump card tends to end debate prematurely and does little, if anything, to advance dialogue. In this case, Trudeau has unnecessarily risked offending would-be supporters in the pro-life camp. Given that his party is in third place, this may not be the most astute political move on his part.

Yet it does demonstrate the extent to which a hardened ideological commitment can assume near religious fervour, as its adherents willfully ignore other factors that might mitigate that commitment. In particular, as the claims of sexual freedom have expanded, they have effectively usurped the space occupied by other, arguably more politically significant, liberties such as religion, speech and the press. Sexual freedom will brook no dissent, and that alone should tell us that we have crossed into the dangerous territory of idolatry.

Is it possible for believing Christians and others less enamoured of the claims of sexual freedom to compromise with its proponents for proximate political purposes? It should be, in theory, but we evidently need not look to Trudeau to provide a way forward.

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