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'Premier Dad' image sullied by decision to curtail civil liberties Add to ...

The alarming part is that they didn't think it was a big deal.

Dalton McGuinty's Liberals might have been able to justify their decision to curtail civil liberties during the G20 summit. Extraordinary times can call for extraordinary measures. But the Premier and his ministers evidently didn't consider it all that extraordinary to significantly expand police powers, so they didn't even attempt to justify it.

Instead, they treated the expansion of the previously obscure Public Works Protection Act like a minor piece of housekeeping.

They would prefer to call it a "clarification," at the request of Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair. But clarifications normally don't take 71-year-old pieces of wartime legislation meant to allow inspection of people entering government buildings and public utilities, and broaden their scope to include the inspection of people outside the security perimeters of international summits.

There are no signs that there was extensive debate or discussion in senior Liberal circles, including at the cabinet table. The government didn't even bother to send out a press release or a quick note to reporters, standard practice when it makes a consequential decision that might otherwise fly under the radar. The only place to find it was buried on the government's e-Laws website, where it passed without notice.

Even now, the Liberals don't seem to get what the fuss is about. They contend that police did a perfectly fine job of explaining the new rules, as evidenced by a print advertisement that advised "what you need to know about the G20 summit."

Unfortunately, the ad made nary a mention of the new law. It also left the impression that only those trying to enter the security zone would be subject to searches and ID checks, even though the new rule provided for those measures up to five metres beyond the perimeter. (No wonder the temporary law only came to light when a protester was arrested for refusing to show his ID while outside the security fence.)

The police were not volunteering information at other junctures, either. When asked by The Globe and Mail last week if there was legislation being used to guide G20 security, a spokesman mentioned only the Police Services Act. And in a June 13 letter to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Chief Blair explicitly cited both the Police Services Act and the federal Foreign Missions and International Organizations Act, but omitted the new regulation - even though it had been approved by cabinet 11 days earlier.

But it's not the job of police to communicate government policies. Nor is it their role to carefully craft or amend laws to balance security with civil liberties, though Mr. McGuinty seems to have effectively delegated that responsibility to them by rubber-stamping Chief Blair's request.

If the Liberals don't understand the concern over their handling of the law, they probably also haven't considered how lucky they are.

They should count their blessings for the anarchists who, by trashing storefronts and police cars, helped minimize the public's civil-liberties concerns. And for the inclination of Torontonians to blame Prime Minister Stephen Harper for placing the summit downtown. And especially for the fact that the most heavy-handed police tactics seem to have occurred too far from the perimeter to be justified by the temporary regulation.

Finally, they should thank their good fortune for an Official Opposition that clearly wants no part of the issue for fear of muddying its law-and-order credentials. While the provincial NDP has been vocal, Tim Hudak hasn't touched it - the Conservative Leader joking about the protests during a speech to party faithful on Monday night, but offering no serious critiques.

Still, the G20 saga should be a wakeup call for the Liberals. The underlying appeal of Mr. McGuinty's "Premier Dad" image is supposed to be that the public can trust him to make calm, well-considered decisions in their interest. It would be a big stretch to contend that's what happened here.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

 

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