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Sex, scapegoats, 'terror' and polls: The fall session of Parliament

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Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr

Sex on the agenda

The fall session of Parliament began with talk of sex.

Later in the session, the talk would be about sexual harassment and maybe even assault, but in September it was about sex work.

The Senate Legal Affairs Committee heard witnesses on Justice Minister Peter MacKay's "Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act."

The Harper government has the tiresome need to give its legislation propagandistic titles, which all too often have little to do with the subject at hand.

MacKay's Act was a classic example of that silly practice.

Reading the Act's title one would be forgiven for assuming the proposed law dealt with the need to "protect communities" from toxic pollution. Think Sydney, Nova Scotia and its tar ponds or the Chipewyan communities of northern Alberta and the tar sands.

As for the "exploited persons" the bill purports to protect: they could be temporary foreign workers, who lack the capacity to unionize or even leave their jobs without being booted out of Canada.

No such luck.

The "exploited persons" in this bill are sex workers -- prostitutes, if you will -- who need protection from pimps; but not, if you read the Act carefully, from potentially violent clients.

The Act makes it harder, not easier, for sex workers to operate in safe situations, where they have the ability to screen clients.

And what are the "communities" that need protection?

That is not clear, except MacKay was definitely not referring to the "community" of people involved in sex work. It seems, in fact, that the Minister meant simply all of us. We need protection from the distasteful activities of sex workers, even if those activities are legal.

Oddly, this piece of legislation was the Harper government's response to a Supreme Court decision -- the so-called "Bedford" decision -- that declared Canada's long-standing prostitution laws to be unconstitutional.

The main thrust of the Bedford decision was that it is an unconstitutional infringement of free speech to prohibit soliciting for the purposes of prostitution, as the old law did. The Court also ruled that a number of other restrictions of the previous legislation on prostitutes activities endangered their safety.

Instead of drafting a new law that scrupulously respected the court decision, MacKay attempted a legislative end-run.

His Act still allows the sale of sex to remain legal, but, for the first time, makes its purchase illegal.

Many legal experts told the Senate committee that Mackay's Act would not survive a court challenge.

Indeed, the Justice Minister himself does not seem entirely convinced his Act will pass muster with the courts. When asked about that, MacKay's answer was fairly blasé. He "believed" his law would withstand a court challenge, he said, almost dismissively.

Those who, at great expense, had brought the original case all the way to the Supreme Court, were bitterly disappointed.

Indeed, some were more than disappointed. They were angry.

Terri Jean Bedford, for whom the Court case is named, threatened to "out" politicians who use sex workers' services if the government persisted in pursuing MacKay's Act.

In the end, the Harper government called Bedford's bluff and passed the Act without substantial amendment. Bedford has, so far, kept her powder dry.

A federal miniumum wage

At a late summer caucus meeting the Official Opposition NDP promised that it would go beyond critiquing the Harper government's agenda and start unveiling its own policy proposals.

The Official Opposition was true to its word.

In September, it kicked off its parade of policy initiatives with an Opposition Day motion calling for a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour. The Liberal Party begrudgingly supported the measure, even though it was the Chrétien Liberals who had abolished the minimum wage in 1996.

The Conservatives opposed it. Labour Minister Kellie Leitch argued that since conditions across the country are different, the wages paid to workers should be different.

Foreign policy and votes

A few days later, Prime Minister Harper got to burnish his image as a "world leader" when the Ukrainian President visited and spoke effusively to Parliament about the close Ukrainian-Canadian relationship.

There are close to a million and a quarter Canadians of Ukrainian descent. Their votes are crucial not only in many western Canadian ridings, but elsewhere in Canada as well, especially in Ontario.

As with so much of what passes for foreign policy, the Harper government's intense interest in the Ukraine is mostly for domestic consumption.

The art of scapegoating

Toward the end of September, the Harper government focused again on one of its favourite targets: refugees.

It used a private member's bill to push a change in the rules for federal transfer payments to the provinces that would deny social assistance to the majority of people in the refugee process.

By the end of the session that measure was no longer a private member's bill. It was included in the Harper government's latest omnibus budget implementation bill.

While the Harper government was trying to make life tougher for people who come to Canada seeking protection as Convention refugees, it was playing a passive-aggressive game on the question of Syrian refugees.

After promising to resettle a very modest number, Harper's immigration minister, the former diplomat (and future leadership contender?) Chris Alexander came far short of even that very modest target.

Then, at year's end, the government truculently admitted that it might consider helping with the desperate Syrian refugee crisis, but would only want to bring to Canada members of minority religious groups. The vast majority of refugees are Muslims, but we don't want any of them, it seems.

Political motives for a disavowal of compassion and generosity

Some are puzzled at the Harper gang's hostility to people who are victims of violence and persecution, especially considering Canada's record of generosity toward refugees over the past  sixty years.

We took in 50,000 Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s and early 1980s and an equal number of Hungarian refugees in the mid 1950s. Folks who are puzzled by the Harper regime's anti-refugee stance say that Canadians are proud of that record. Why then, they ask, is Harper now so vehemently flouting that proud tradition of generosity and compassion?

To find the answer you need look no further than Conservative Party fundraising pitches.

Conservative donors report that they have received phone solicitations from the Party that tout the cuts to refugee health care.

The Conservatives virtually killed the $20-million-per-year federal health program for refugees, with much braggadocio and ballyhoo about how there were cutting gold-plated benefits unavailable to average hard-working Canadians.  

The federal court ordered them to restore the program, but they're dragging their heels. Refugees and their supporters will have to go back to court to get the Harper government to respect the law.

But the important fact here is the $20-million price tag, a tiny amount in the federal government's accounts. One would expect that Conservative fundraisers would have other government accomplishments they might want to brag about.

There is only one possible reason for which they choose to demonize refugees. It is a blatant appeal to ignorance, resentment and prejudice.

It must work.

Fundraising on First Nations' backs

At year's end, the Harper government's fundraisers had chosen another convenient scapegoat: First Nations people. They posted an ad boasting about the First Nations Transparency Act, which Pamela Palmater eloquently dissected in her rabble piece, "Stephen Harper and the myth of the crooked Indian."

Amusingly, the online fundraising pitch at first featured an Inuit symbol, the Inukshuk, but the Party changed it when they realized the Transparency Act does not apply to the Inuit.

More important, the pitch plays into the all-too-widespread belief that First Nations people are the authors of their own misery.

It ignores the well-documented under-funding of basic services to First Nations, and the dysfunctional funding system that former Auditor General Sheila Fraser described with such devastating insight.

Bombs for Iraq; homegrown 'terrorists'; and polls, polls, polls

The fall session of Parliament also saw the NDP release its $15-per-day national daycare pledge; Stephen Harper skip climate change meetings at the UN; a Canadian commitment to drop a few bombs in Iraq; a court case brought by students and the Council of Canadians against the (so-called) Fair Elections act; and, of course, the murder of two Canadian military officers. One of those murders was accompanied by a flurry of bullets on Parliament Hill.

The individuals responsible for this frightful and utterly unjustified outbreak of destructive violence cloaked their actions in extremist Islamic rhetoric.

There is no evidence, however, that these pointless and futile crimes were part of any larger conspiracy. As far as anyone can tell, the killings were nothing more than the irrational acts of unhinged individuals.

Nonetheless, the mere fact that "terror" and security are once again top-of-mind matters has, we are told by pundits and pollsters alike, been good for the Prime Minister's political fortunes.

Harper's numbers are up; there is more spring in his step; and there is lots of speculation that he will try to find an excuse to call an election earlier than the legally mandated date of October 19, 2015.

Still, pollsters are quick to remind us, the amiable scion of a now-revered former Prime Minister continues to top the polls, although with a reduced margin.

And the Liberals' Justin Trudeau also continues to receive media attention far in excess of his Party's distant third place position in Parliament.

When media folks less frequently turn their attention to the Official Opposition NDP, they tend to patronizingly shake their collective heads.

Too bad for Tom Mulcair and his troops, they say. They are a serious, competent bunch, and have done a splendid job in Parliament. But that good work does not register in the opinion polls.

The unfortunate truth, the sages of the national media knowingly cluck, is that hardly anyone pays attention to Parliament. And so Mulcair and the NDP's strong performance is a bit like Bishop Berkeley's tree that falls in the forest when nobody is around. Did it really happen?

The next session, starting at the end of January, will be the run up to the election, whether it happens in October or earlier.

Is there a chance Canadian voters will start focusing more intently on what goes on in the halls of power and the chambers of legislative deliberation, with the prospect of having to choose a new government (or keep the current one) looming so close at hand?

Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr

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