At the outset of Parliament’s debate on the death penalty, the government proclaimed its commitment to “a full and open debate followed by a free vote.” Conservative MP Douglas Lewis, speaking for the government as he opened the debate on April 27, said that to force a vote on reinstating capital punishment “would be contradictory on a matter of conscience.” Lewis, the parliamentary secretary to Deputy Prime Minister
Donald Mazankowski and himself an advocate of the death penalty, urged all MPs to deal with the divisive issue “in as calm and thoughtful a manner as possible.” But late last week, after five sporadic rounds of speechmaking during the past two months and a bitter dispute over deadlines, the House of Commons came under government pressure to close down debate and bring the issue to a vote as early as this week. Liberal Lloyd Axworthy charged that the pressure was exerted by the majority of government MPs who want to bring back the death penalty. Said
Axworthy: “They believe they are losing the debate.”
Slip: Axworthy and other opponents of the death penalty claimed that support for reinstatement is slipping, both inside Parliament and in the country at large. As a result, they said, Tory advocates of capital punishment wanted to force the issue to a vote before time— and more debate—eroded their support even further. By the same token, opponents among the opposition Liberals
and New Democrats used procedural tactics in an attempt to prolong debate and stave off a showdown. Said New Democratic Party House Leader Nelson Riis: “With time goes education, and with education on the issue, there is a tendency to become abolitionist.” By week’s end, parliamentarians on both sides of the argument calculated that the vote result would be closer than expected when the debate began. Conceded William Domm, the Peterborough, Ont., Tory MP who led the campaign for the restoration of capital punishment: “Ten votes could change the outcome.”
Recent opinion surveys in Parliament and across the country reinforce the claim that support for capital punishment is weakening. A month before the Commons debate began, a Maclean's survey of MPs recorded 124 in favor of restoring the death penalty and 88 against, with the rest of the 279 sitting members uncommitted or declining to state their position. But four of the five MPs who came off the fence publicly during early stages of the debate de-
dared themselves opposed to the resolution being debated. It would commit the Commons in principle to bring back capital punishment and authorize a special committee of MPs to recommend “which offence or offences should carry the death penalty” and “which method or methods of execution should be used to carry out the penalty of death.”
Shift: Since those public shifts to the anti-reinstatement camp, other MPs are reported to have moved more quietly into the opponents’ camp. Among those are as many as five Liberals who once supported the resolution and Toronto
iTory David Crombie. All 30 NDP members oppose the resolution. As well, opponents of capital punishment were counting last week on the intervention of a powerful ally to help sway wavering Tories to vote against the resolution—Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Late last week a prime ministerial aide said that Mulroney planned to join in the debate. No member of the cabinet had spoken during earlier stages. Mulroney, whose 1984 election promise brought about the current debate, has been an eloquent opponent of bringing back the death penalty. He contends that the practical arguments in favor of capital punishment are not persuasive, asserting that there is no conclusive evidence that executions have had any effect on preventing capital crimes. Mulroney also argues against the death penalty on moral grounds—that there is no justification in taking a life except in extreme cases of self-defence and that it is as wrong for the state as it is for an individual to take a life.
Erase: Those and similar arguments have been presented repeatedly—if by less eminent politicians than the Prime Minister—during the total of about 12 hours of debate on the issue since April. In large part, the arguments have been repetitions of those espoused with more passion and drama in 1976, when Parliament voted narrowly after years of hesitation to erase capital punishment from the Canadian Criminal Code.
Since that time national opinion polls have also repeatedly indicated that as many as three Canadians in four support the reinstatement of capital punishment for murder. But more recently, that support has appeared to decline sharply. The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll conducted earlier this month indicated that only three in eight Canadians now say that they are convinced that Canada should bring back the death penalty. Such statistics undercut the argument of MPs that, by pressing for a return of capital punishment, they are reflecting the will of a substantial majority of constituents.
As telling a poll result for MPs is its indication that most Canadians are skeptical of Parliament’s ability or determination to take a tough law-andorder position. Two out of three respondents predicted that Parliament would not reinstate the death penalty. And three out of four said that in any case the issue should not be left to
politicians, but should be settled instead by a nationwide plebiscite.
On the other hand, the poll results indicated that MPs who go against their constituents’ wishes in the vote on capital punishment would not necessarily be in political jeopardy as a result. A significant 73 per cent of the respondents said that they would not vote against their MP in the next federal election simply because the legislator’s position on the question differed from their own. “If my MP voted against restoration, I would still vote for him,” said poll respondent John Steward, a retired air traffic controller who lives in Vernon, B.C., and who says that he would like to see a return to capital punishment. “He has to represent a lot of people, not just me. And he has his own conscience to live with.”
Risk: For MPs on either side of the capital punishment debate, the poll suggests that the political risks may be minimal. Indeed, some parliamentary strategists indicated last week that the government’s tactic of pressing for a vote before Parliament’s scheduled summer recess on June 30 was designed to satisfy both sides of the warring camps in the Tory caucus. By threatening to invoke a closure rule to curtail debate and force a vote, Mazankowski and Lewis gave in to pressures from backbench Tory advocates of capital punishment—and the voters who support them. At the same time, by agreeing under pressure from opponents of capital punishment to permit debate to proceed this week, and by scheduling Mulroney’s speech, the government countered contentions that it had reneged on its commitment to a full, fair and free debate.
Still, opponents of the government tactics said that they felt cheated. Said Axworthy, referring to the government’s threat to invoke closure: “That is the first telltale sign of an authoritarian mind—that they are afraid to put their own ideas and their own commitments out for public exposure.”
-HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa
PARLIAMENT’S ROLE AND THE DEATH PENALTY
Will Parliament vote to bring back the death penalty?
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