In the face of overwhelming public opinion in favor of capital punishment, the Canadian Parliament on Tuesday rejected an effort to restore it.
The vote, 148 to 127, came early in the morning and after three months of debate. It was the first time since 1976 that members of Parliament were allowed a free vote--to act according to their own interests rather than the dictates of party leaders.
As the voting began, spokesmen on both sides had said they could not forecast the outcome. As it turned out, the margin was surprisingly wide--particularly because polls showed more than 60% of the public favors the death penalty, which was abolished 11 years ago, and early surveys of Parliament indicated that the measure would pass by a margin of as much as 2 to 1.
The reversal was due to several factors, including an emotional appeal by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of the Progressive Conservative Party. Mulroney called for defeat of the measure and promised to commute any death sentence as long as he is prime minister. The promise was echoed by opposition leaders likely to succeed him as prime minister.
Edward Greenspan, one of Canada's most prominent criminal lawyers and a leader of the anti-restoration forces, said Mulroney's speech made the difference, and he added:
"He took members of his caucus and turned them, and he did it without arm-twisting. He did it by the force of his argument."
Another factor was a well-organized effort by forces outside Parliament, which took advantage of a softness in public opinion. Although the polls showed great support for restoration, only about 5% of the people polled indicated that they thought the issue was important enough for them to vote against any member who opposed it.
Edmund Burke Cited
This finding allowed the legislators to act somewhat independently of their constituents and, as several members urged in debate, to heed the teaching of the 18th-Century English political philosopher Edmund Burke, who said that members of Parliament owe a duty to lead the public, not follow it.
Mulroney made it easy to do this by allowing a free vote. He promised in the 1984 national election campaign to have the question of capital punishment put to a vote, as the right wing of his party demanded.
The focus of the debate was predictable. Supporters argued that crime is on the upswing and that capital punishment would deter offenders. Opponents pointed out that the death sentence has failed to deter crime in the United States, and they cited the low murder rate in Canada, where only 704 homicides were reported last year, fewer than in Detroit alone.
Canada abolished capital punishment in 1976 for all crimes except treason, and no one has been executed here since 1962. Tuesday's vote, according to supporters and opponents alike, is expected to be the last attempt to revive it for decades.
'It's Over Now'
William Domm, a Progressive Conservative who was the major force behind restoring capital punishment, said that "we're going to hear again" from the public but that the debate will not be a parliamentary issue for the rest of the century.
"It's over now," Greenspan said. "If it couldn't be returned with the largest Conservative majority in history, it won't ever be."
The numbers seemed to bear him out. If advocates of capital punishment could not succeed with a Conservative government controlling 208 of the 282 seats in Parliament, they are not considered likely to try again, especially since both opposition parties are officially opposed to the death penalty, as are most potential Conservative leaders.