Emmett Macfarlane is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. You can follow him on Twitter @EmmMacfarlane.
To speak of “a new low in our politics” has become a tired cliché.
The phrase is almost always tossed around in the midst of fairly banal partisan rancour, and it tends not to seriously or realistically assert the crossing of some new ethical, moral or political red line so much as it reflects a general dissatisfaction with how politics are conducted or just a rhetorical way of expressing dislike over what someone said or did.
It is easy to dismiss the idea that any particular political conduct is all that bad, because usually it is not, even if the general state of our politics is lamentable as a whole. In other words, it is not often that the despair many Canadians rightly feel about how partisan politics are conducted in this country is actually crystallized in an incident that truly represents “a new low” in political behaviour.
Enter Conservative MP Robert Goguen, the human embodiment of the answer to “how can this possibly get worse?”
First, some background: The government’s new anti-prostitution legislation, Bill C-36, would criminalize the purchase of sex, the advertising of sexual services, and place restrictions on public communication for soliciting sexual services. The bill is a response to a Supreme Court ruling last December that invalidated Criminal Code provisions relating to prostitution on the basis that they increased the dangers of sex work and therefore violated sex workers’ right to life, liberty, and security of the person under the Charter of Rights.
Many of Bill C-36’s critics (myself included) argue the new provisions would impose the same dangers by making it more difficult for sex workers to vet their clients, conduct business in a place of their choosing and in a relatively safe manner – in other words, like the old provisions, Bill C-36 will only push prostitution underground and make it more dangerous, not less so.
Among the various Charter of Rights arguments, some people claim that the restrictions on public communication violate freedom of expression. Mr. Goguen apparently thought he would make a point about this criticism of his government’s bill in the midst of justice committee hearings on Bill C-36, while questioning Timea Nagy, a witness from Walk With Me Canada Victims’ Services who had been a victim of human trafficking (and who, it should be noted, supports the government’s proposed legislation).
Mr. Goguen posed this question: “You were describing a scenario where you were being raped, I believe, by three Russians. Let’s suppose the police authorities would’ve broken in and rescued you. Would your freedom of expression have been in any way breached?”
Ms. Nagy: “I don’t understand the question.”
Mr. Goguen: “What I’m saying is, you weren’t freely expressing yourself by being raped by three men.”
After having the question explained to her by other witnesses, Nagy said “no.” She actually apologized for not immediately understanding the question, noting English was not her first language, perhaps on the very generous assumption that Mr. Goguen’s reasoning made sense in any language.
What Mr. Goguen appears to have been getting at is that the Charter of Rights arguments critics have made against the bill are not relevant when human trafficking and rape are happening.
Never mind that Ms. Nagy’s horrific experience has nothing to do with whether public communication for the purposes of prostitution infringes free expression, or that there’s no evidence the legislation under scrutiny at the hearing would prevent such incidents, or that the legislation might actually increase the risks that sex workers be raped or murdered, or that human trafficking and rape are already illegal, or that the government hastily developed the bill without much apparent regard for the views of the many sex workers, experts and advocacy groups who oppose its provisions, or that it is planning to rush the bill through, as per its typical pattern, without much thought to the considerable opposition or constitutional issues it faces.
Actually, all of those things seem pretty relevant.
Where were we? Oh yeah, a Member of Parliament just used someone’s gang rape to make a cheap non-sequitur point during a policy debate.
Worse still, this does not seem to be an off-the-cuff remark, a moment of sheer stupidity where the few neurons in a partisan brain fail to collide and someone accidentally spouts something so momentously dumb even Rob Ford is embarrassed for them. Instead, it appears to have been a planned, “clever” question designed to expose the flawed rationale of critics the government views as immoral degenerates who want prostitution legalized and regulated instead of abolished.
It is part and parcel of an approach to this issue that envisions all sex workers as victims – objects of pity or derision instead of people who possess the capacity, autonomy and judgment to make decisions for themselves. It expressly avoids addressing the many real ills and crimes associated with the sex-work industry, including the fact that some sex workers are coerced and some are not, in favour of a blunt crime-and-punishment approach.
The government’s approach has been to take a complex social issue and reduce it to a simplistic moral one. But simplistic moralizing does not make for good policy, does not help to protect rights, and apparently doesn’t stop an MP from forgetting his morals at the door and hitting such depths as to genuinely strike that so very rare thing: a new low in our politics.