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Justice Minister Peter MacKay: Participants at an Ontario lawyers group quote Mr. MacKay as saying women aren’t applying for the judiciary in large numbers because they have a special bond with their young children. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Justice Minister Peter MacKay: Participants at an Ontario lawyers group quote Mr. MacKay as saying women aren’t applying for the judiciary in large numbers because they have a special bond with their young children. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

House committee set to review proposed prostitution bill Add to ...

With the Conservative government under fire for changes proposed in its prostitution bill, the NDP and Liberals have remained largely silent on the divisive issue.

The House of Commons justice committee is scheduled to begin its clause-by-clause review of Bill C-36 Tuesday, after hours of marathon witness hearings last week. But the week of hearings has done little to reveal what either of Canada’s other major political parties would do differently.

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The bill was tabled after the Supreme Court struck down existing laws seven months ago. It largely targets buyers of sex with new penalties, though includes others that would affect sex workers, including limits on advertising and on discussing the sale of sex in areas where children may reasonably be expected to be.

Many critics have offered vocal opposition to the bill, in particular warning it would endanger sex workers and, therefore, not pass a constitutional challenge. But while the Conservatives have laid bare their approach in tabling the bill, the NDP and Liberals have not said explicitly what they would do to replace the laws that had been struck down – such as whether they favour models used in Sweden or New Zealand, as some witnesses have called for.

Outside the hearings last week, Liberal justice critic Sean Casey sidestepped several questions about what specifically his party would do differently.

“We would come up with something that respects the Supreme Court [ruling] and respects the Charter,” Mr. Casey said. He declined to specify what the Liberals would do – whether lean toward a crackdown or regulating the industry – saying only the Liberal approach would be “the result of all available evidence.”

The New Democrats’ party policy book includes a call to protect “the health and safety of sex-trade workers,” but doesn’t offer any detail. A party official said Sunday that the NDP would consult with sex workers – many of whom testified to the committee – before deciding on an approach.

“Our priority is safety, so an NDP government would launch consultations with sex workers and other affected groups as to how they can best be protected, and shape laws accordingly. This is a life-and-death issue and deserves a responsive and responsible legal framework that is in accordance with the Charter,” NDP Caucus press secretary Greta Levy said in a statement Sunday.

The committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday to go over each clause of the 50-page bill, which is on a fast-track to ensure it passes before the current laws expire in December, the deadline imposed by the Court.

A committee review is typically the closest look a bill gets on its way through the House of Commons, but this committee’s work appears set to wrap up without the results of a poll the government commissioned on the subject. Justice Minister Peter MacKay has thus far declined to release the poll until the end of July. A government spokeswoman confirmed Sunday the poll will be released at the end of the month.

Mr. MacKay was, however, the first witness to speak to the committee last week, insisting at the time he believed the bill would pass a constitutional challenge and pushing back against the suggestion the bill could hurt the industry, a view some sex workers went on to tell the committee last week.

“This legislation is not meant to enable, encourage or in any way normalize the sale of sexual services,” Mr. MacKay said. “Quite the contrary.”

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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