So Whose Bloody Job Is It?

At a recent town hall, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff took a question from the audience about the prostitution laws.

Almost two months ago, an Ontario judge ruled that Canada’s prostitution laws put prostitutes at greater risk of violence and therefore violate Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government immediately announced it would appeal. If the ruling stands, it will strike down laws against “living off the avails” of prostitution, keeping a “common bawdy house,” and communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution. So what does Ignatieff feel about this?

“It’s being appealed, and all I feel about it is there is a balance, which I see in my own constituency,” Ignatieff replied, as reported by Dale Smith of Xtra. “Families in family areas are very concerned about the public nuisance and public disorder that happens with prostitution…. On the other hand, the same families are concerned about the safety, the physical safety, of sex workers. That’s the balance we have to find. I’m not going to say whether that court got it right. That’s not my job. My job is then, if the government appeals, and there’s a decision and has to be new legislation, we’ll look at the new legislation with that balance in mind, because that’s the balance that Canadians want us to keep.”

As political evasion goes, this was poor stuff. Good evasion doesn’t look evasive. The politician talks and talks, he looks earnest, he sounds judicious, and he moves smoothly to the next question without having said anything even slightly interesting or substantive. Ignatieff’s performance was closer to Jon Lovitz cooing “yeahhh, that’s the ticket.”

It’s “not my job”? What an amazing statement. Whose bloody job is it? And that line about the appeal and new legislation is nothing less than astonishing.

Remember, Madam Justice Susan Himel decided – after an exhaustive trial featuring countless witnesses and heaps of documentary evidence – that the existing laws were literally aiding and abetting the robbery, rape, and murder of some of the most powerless people in society. To this, Ignatieff responds by lowering his fulsome eyebrows, noting that the decision is being appealed, and promising that, if the ruling stands, he’ll have a look at whatever new legislation the government may see fit to put forward at some unspecified date. To ensure it’s balanced. Because Canadians want balance.

Meanwhile, if Justice Himel is right, and her decision is stayed while the appeal proceeds, years will crawl by – and the prostitution laws will continue to aid and abet crimes against vulnerable people. Not that Ignatieff has an opinion about that. It’s not his job.

Now, as we have established, Canadians want balance, and so I must not be one-sided in my criticism. For all his evasiveness, Ignatieff at least acknowledged the elementary fact that prostitutes are victims of horrific levels of violence and he would prefer, on balance, that this were not so. Which is nice. As far as I am aware, Stephen Harper has made no statement on the subject, evasive or otherwise, in response to a question from the public. That may be because he doesn’t take questions from the public. Or it may be because he really isn’t all that concerned about the safety of prostitutes. Recall that when Justice Himel made her ruling, the government did not say, “the very possibility that the law is endangering women is alarming and so we will urgently investigate.” It expressed alarm that the ruling endangers the law. And it said it would appeal.

As far as I can find, Ignatieff and Harper haven’t uttered a single serious statement on the subject between the two of them. And that, unfortunately, is typical of how the political class has dealt with prostitution for decades.

In 1983, the “Fraser Committee,” a special committee of Parliament, launched a two-year investigation into prostitution and related issues. It gathered all available evidence. It commissioned new research. And in 1985, it reported that the prostitution laws were a haphazard mess that failed to reduce levels of prostitution and put prostitutes in greater danger. It recommended a modest and tightly regulated form of legalization.

The government ignored the Fraser Committee. Instead, it passed a new law that strengthened the crime of communicating in public. As Justice Himel noted, some MPs criticized the government for making “a hasty response to a complicated problem” and so the government promised it would examine the other recommendations of the Fraser Committee.

It never did.

Three years after the new law was enacted, a legislated review was conducted. It found that the new law had only pushed street prostitution from block to block, driving prostitutes into more isolated environments where they were at greater risk.

The government ignored the review.

I could go on – and on and on – but the point is clear. Serious examinations of the prostitution laws always conclude they are a patchwork desperately in need of fundamental reform. And the political class always refuses to talk seriously about it.

The government’s lawyers have argued that allowing Justice Himel’s ruling to come into force before the appeal is decided will result in “chaos” on the streets. I doubt it. But if it does, don’t blame judges. Blame politicians too cowardly to do their jobs.