Pubdate: Wed, 02 Nov 2011
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2011 The Ottawa Citizen
Author: Dan Gardner, Columnist, Ottawa Citizen


In a sense, it's perfectly reasonable that the government is severely
restricting the amount of time Parliament can spend discussing a long
list of complex bills that have appeared at various times in various
forms in the past and will now, thanks to the Conservative majority,
finally become law. The government ignored informed criticisms before.
It will ignore them now. So why bother?

Wrap things up quickly, turn off the lights, and the government will
at least save a few dollars that can be put toward future purchases of

Of course one may complain about the hypocrisy of Stephen Harper and
other senior Conservatives who furiously denounced the Chretien
government when it did precisely what they are doing now. (Well, not
"precisely." Harper has imposed time limits at a much higher rate than
Chretien did, even at his most imperious, and he is on track to set an
all-time record. But let's not get distracted by trivia, as the PMO
flack would say.)

Or one may complain that it's undemocratic. And contemptuous. One may
note that almost one-third of MPS have never debated these issues in
the House of Commons and, if Parliament is to be something more than a
fig leaf covering the prime minister's naughty bits, parliamentarians
must have the right to stand up and debate as long as they damned well

But these arguments are based on principle and respect for
parliamentary tradition. Think that's going to wash with the
Harperites? You might as well make your case by quoting the Koran.

There is, however, another reason for thinking this is a terrible
mistake. It's one that even Conservatives may care about.

In practical terms, the big issues have indeed been debated, as the
government says. Mandatory minimum sentences. Ending the Wheat Board's
monopoly. Scrapping the gun registry. All have been discussed at great
length, both in Parliament and in election campaigns. Whatever their
wisdom, the government has a mandate to proceed.

But the legislation implementing these broad directions is something
else entirely. Consider this little story.

A couple of weeks ago, University of Toronto criminologist Tony Doob
directed me to a provision buried within the omnibus crime bill.

The government has often said the bill will create a mandatory minimum
of six months in jail for anyone who grows at least six marijuana
plants for the purposes of trafficking. It's supposedly a measure
targeting gangsters, but that, frankly, is nonsense. The legal
definition of "trafficking" includes selling, giving, or offering any
quantity, so we can be quite sure that most people who fall within the
ambit of the law are not Hells Angels and wouldn't know one if they
tripped over their big leather boots. 

But read the legislation. There is a second mandatory minimum of nine 
months in jail that applies under certain circumstances. One is when 
the marijuana plants are grown "on real property that belongs to a 
third party." So if you grow pot in a condo, it doesn't apply. But 
grow it in a rented apartment and it does. And there's no cut-off. 
Even a single plant would trigger the mandatory minimum.

I wrote about this. And the press secretary to the minister of justice

You are wrong, she said. There is no such provision in the bill. To
prove her point, she sent a summary of the bill's contents.

I told her she was wrong. And so was the summary. Read the
legislation, I said. 

No response. Later, before a parliamentary committee dominated by 
Conservatives determined to move things along as quickly as possible, 
hearings were held to discuss the crime bill. Expert witnesses were 
given five minutes to speak.

One of them was Tony Doob, the U of T criminologist. He raised this
issue. And Conservative MP Robert Goguen told him not to worry.

"That's clearly a drafting error," he said. "This happened as a result
of when the bill was amended some years ago by the NDP. The section
wasn't properly changed to reflect that there should be more than five
plants and it's clearly the minister's intent to rectify this mistake."

A couple of points. First, this would still mean renters and owners
are subject to very different sentences, which is bizarre. Second,
blaming the NDP is like blaming the dog for eating your homework "some
years ago."

Third, it is not reassuring that the minister intends to change
something whose existence he and his staff were unaware of until
critics forced them to see it given that the government is determined
to push heaps of complex legislation through Parliament with little
opportunity for other critics to find other concerns that other
ministers need to know about.

And, no, this isn't just about catching drafting errors. It's about
different perspectives, new ideas, reconsiderations, modifications,
additions. It's about all the reasons why we have a Parliament, and
why the name of that institution comes from the Old French
"Parlement," meaning a place to talk.

It's about good government. Conservatives are in favour of that,
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.