Prostitution bill a political ploy that misses mark

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Justice Minister Peter MacKay is selling his new prostitution bill as a uniquely "Canadian model.''

It is really the Conservative model and there is nothing unique about it because we've seen this time and again.

Once again, Stephen Harper's government is beating the law-and-order drums, a rhythm which gets the base swaying and the party bank account chi-chinging.

It uses advertising slogans to name its bill, this one known as The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, taking its place in recent Tory lore beside the Fair Elections Act (which before amendments was anything but) and the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act (which actually provides more surveillance power to police).

The bill touches all the sweet spots for Conservatives, with vows to protect children, protect families and communities and get tough with all the P's - the pimps, perpetrators, purchasers of sex and perverts, to borrow a bit of the minister's alliterative flare.

This bill looks like another back of the hand from Harper to the courts, something that sets that base to chest-thumping.

The Conservatives, then, have a little bit of love where it's needed and lots of bile for their bad guys, but this does nothing to keep women in the sex trade safe.

It does quite the opposite.

MacKay will ante up $20 million to help women "exit a lifestyle of exploitation and danger," but to put that spending in perspective, the government has spent five times that over the past five years for a series of Economic Action Plan ads.

This bill would inevitably push sex workers underground, forcing them to take their work to dark streets in areas where children and teens are scarce (the toughest penalties are for those buying or selling sex where minors could "reasonably" be expected to be) without the proper vetting process for clients.

In essence, a government that is under fire for its refusal to probe missing and murdered aboriginal women in this country has now introduced legislation that will drive female sex workers out of the relative safety of homes and back onto perilous streets.

New Democrats urged MacKay Thursday to refer his new bill to the Supreme Court, since that is where it is headed anyway. But the minister won't do so even if he knew from the outset that this would not survive a court challenge.

It is too valuable in its present form for the government in 2015, playing to its self-promoting image of protecting all things fine, upstanding families respect, even if the legislation comes nowhere near answering the court's original demand for better protection for sex workers in its ruling which landed this mess on MacKay's desk.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May even wondered whether Harper was planning to run against the Supreme Court next year, so clearly does this bill ignore the court's decision last December.

The court decision found that the laws prohibiting brothels, living off the avails of prostitution and communicating in public for purposes of prostitution were overly broad and infringed on prostitutes' Charter rights to security of the person.

This bill all but ignores the court's call.

But a list of those who immediately fell in line to back the bill illustrates the Conservatives' target audience.

MacKay received praise from REAL Women, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and Canada Family Action.

Those who lined up against the legislation were those who actually work with women in the sex trade.

They know that a bill which eliminates their ability to advertise and chokes off their means of communication will endanger them.

Targeting clients means customers will no longer use private homes for fear of police stakeouts.

"We will see more missing and murdered women because of this legislation," said Katrina Pacey of PIVOT, a Vancouver legal advocacy organization that works with prostitutes and the homeless of that city's downtown east side.

Only days earlier it had released a survey from sex workers predicting any bill targeting johns would make life more dangerous for women and would ultimately be found unconstitutional.

The organization called the bill "cynical and dystopic" and accused Ottawa of breaching a litany of charter rights.

MacKay says he was trying to thread the needle with this bill, but a government serious about real legislation that is not really a campaign tool should head back to its knitting.

 

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer.

tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1.

Organizations: Conservatives, Supreme Court, Green Party Institute of Marriage and Family Canada

Geographic location: Canada, Vancouver, Ottawa

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