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Tabatha Southey was born on Christmas Day. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Tabatha Southey was born on Christmas Day. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

TABATHA SOUTHEY

To Harper, a ‘majority’ (on sex) is not always a majority (on marijuana) Add to ...

“I think that our consultations certainly indicate majority support for the actions we are taking,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said of the government’s Protecting Communities and Exploited Persons Act – their anti-sex-work legislation.

While it’s been frequently mentioned, the Conservatives have repeatedly refused to release an apparently bill-affirming poll that’s loomed so large over Bill C-36.

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Such modesty becomes a government – one does not want to rub the public’s enthusiasm for one’s legislation in one’s opponent’s face. It was tempting to see this as the dawn of a new era of civility in politics. Yet when, despite the Conservative’s coyness, indeed over their objections, a copy of the Justice Department-commissioned Ipsos-Reid poll was obtained this week, it showed that only 51.2 per cent of the 3,000 Canadians polled believe buying sexual services should be illegal – which they would be under Bill C-36.

The poll has a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points – meaning that, barring some new definitions of the words “majority” or “support,” our prime minister is as wrong about his facts as he is about the bill he claims those facts inspired – a bill that puts the lives of sex workers at risk.

To put the level of support for Bill C-36 and what the Conservatives claim is their reaction to that support in perspective, an Ipsos-Reid telephone poll (again with 3,000 respondents) was released this week showing that 70.7 per cent of Canadians support either decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of marijuana or outright legalization of marijuana. Of this 70.7 per cent, more than half support full legalization.

If a mere 51.2 per cent support is enough to make the Conservatives invite yet another Supreme Court Challenge with Bill C-36, by their own logic this other poll should have them dropping bags of weed from helicopters onto Canadian cities (checks roof) or at least sending their MPs out on the weekends to roll a few joints for hard-working Canadians.

Except, of course, Canadians have not agreed to be governed by Justice Department-commissioned Ipsos-Reid telephone polls – let alone ones the government declines to release. Why, I doubt very many of you would push 3 for “Rule by invisible mob” if that particular poll call were to come in. Had even a full, say, 66 per cent of Canadians chosen that option over, say, pushing 2 for “Carefully crafted laws drawn up after consultation with experts with at least a nod given to the Constitution,” I think we’d still not want that teeming horde to be more than a margin of error away from being a minority.

It was, of course, a constitutional challenge that threw out the old prostitution law, and many hoped decriminalization of adults consensually selling and contentedly buying sex would result. Interestingly, perhaps even ironically, a new study released this week looked at what happened when, while striking a law that criminalized some kinds of consensual sex between adults from its books, the state of Rhode Island accidentally decriminalized prostitution in 1980, a fact that was only noticed in 2003. Paying for sex in Rhode Island stopped being a crime (until 2009 when the loophole was closed) provided that sex took place indoors, which is where most sex workers want to work anyway – because they’re not tree-planters for heaven’s sake and they’re often not dressed for the weather.

The authors of the study (economists Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah, publishing in the National Bureau of Economic Research) can’t say why this happened but, between 2003 and 2009, cases of female gonorrhea in the state fell by 39 per cent. Cases of reported rape fell by 31 per cent – other crime rates did not. The sky remained in place.

The study’s author’s looked at the empirical evidence, the way economists often do to great effect, Mr Harper. They hypothesize what several other studies have concluded and what many sex-workers and their advocates at the Justice Committee Hearings into Bill C-36 were also trying to make clear – improving the bargaining position of sex workers reduces their rate of victimization.

That is exactly what the Supreme Court ordered.

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