Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says he’ll allow MPs free votes on two bills that are controversial within his party.
Last week, the Liberal government reintroduced legislation to ban the practice of forcing someone to undergo therapy aimed at changing their sexual orientation or gender identity.
On Monday, the Liberals reintroduced a bill that expands eligibility for medical assistance in dying.
Asked on his way into his weekly meeting with MPs Wednesday whether he’ll allow them free votes on the bills, O’Toole was succinct: “Yes, we will.”
Both pieces of legislation have met stiff resistance from socially conservative pockets of the Conservative party, and how O’Toole would deal with the bills formed part of the storyline for the leadership race he won in August.
Two of the candidates, current Ontario MP Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis, who is seeking to run for Parliament in the next election, were harshly critical of the ban on conversion therapy, alleging it would criminalize mere conversations between parents and children.
The Liberals say the bill does no such thing, but even O’Toole has picked up on that thread, suggesting in his speech in response to the legislation last week that it is insufficiently clear in its provisions and saying his party will seek amendments.
“Conversion therapy should be banned to protect young people who identify as LGBTQ+. I want everyone to feel accepted in our society,” he said. “Let us do this in the right way and make sure their support networks are not jeopardized in the process. We will be seeking reasonable amendments to try to get to yes on this.”
On medical assistance in dying, O’Toole voted against the original legislation when it was introduced.
Medically assisted death
During the leadership race, he promised social conservatives that he would protect “the conscience rights of all health-care professionals whose beliefs, religious or otherwise, prevent them from carrying out or referring patients for services that violate their conscience.”
In 2019, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled doctors who have moral objections to providing health services like abortion or assisted death must provide patients with an “effective referral” to another doctor.
The bill before the Commons now deals with another ruling from last fall, which struck down a provision that allows only people already near death to end their lives with medical help.
The Liberals previously introduced the bill in February before Parliament adjourned due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the government subsequently prorogued Parliament in August, the bill was erased from the legislative agenda and needed to be brought back.
The Conservative response to the previous bill had been that it was too broad.
On Wednesday, Conservative House leader Gerard Deltell said the question of medical assistance in dying cannot and should not be dealt with in a partisan way.
“There is no good or bad position,” he said. “We have to address it seriously, correctly and with respect.”
The 2016 vote on the original assisted-death bill was a free vote in the Commons, with 14 Conservative MPs siding with the government.
Conservatives have long demanded more chances to cast their votes according to conscience and not on party lines, an issue that can be more sensitive when a party is in power.
During the leadership race, a point of contention had been whether the respective candidates would allow cabinet ministers in a Conservative government to vote in favour of socially conservative bills, such as any effort to legislate bans on abortion.