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adam radwanski

It's even worse than it originally appeared.

Not only did Dalton McGuinty's Liberals place limits on civil liberties without telling anyone - but they also then washed their hands as police misrepresented and misused their new powers.

It's a glaring abdication of responsibility, reflective of a government overly content to give police carte blanche even in the most volatile situations.

In this instance that free rein seems to have been abused, not least by Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair.

For several days, most everyone was under the impression that the province - through a temporary regulation affecting the Public Works Protection Act - had very quietly given police the power to conduct searches and demand identification up to five metres outside the security fence erected for last weekend's G20 summit. They were under that impression because police acted as though it was the case.

The legislation was cited in last Thursday's arrests of at least two activists, neither of whom seems to have tried to enter the zone. There is video evidence of officers citing the five-metre rule as they demanded that one of those activists, a rather harmless-looking, megaphone-wielding member of a group calling itself "the Love Police," stop filming video well outside the fence.

Chief Blair, who requested the regulation in the first place, now claims that he only realized last Friday that the "five metres" refers to an area inside the fence, at which point he told his officers to stop invoking it. But he seemingly implied to a reporter Tuesday that he was willing to allow the public to continue to think through the weekend that police powers existed where they really didn't, because he was "trying to keep the criminals out."

Clearly, Chief Blair has a lot to answer for. But it was the Liberals who set this mess in motion, and declined to put an end to it when they had ample chance.

First, the government failed to announce its new law. A simple press release could have explained what the regulation, which is worded in such a way that even police claim to have been confused by it, did and didn't cover. Instead, the province buried it on a government website, such that nobody heard about it until an arrest was made.

Worse, the Liberals made no effort over the weekend to set the record straight, even though virtually every media outlet was reporting that people merely passing by the fence could find themselves in deep trouble. Mr. McGuinty could have stepped forward and reassured the public that the liberties of anyone not trying to enter the security zone were intact. Instead, he offered only "a lot of confidence in Chief Blair" and "very strong support of this time-limited extraordinary measure," which reinforced the impression that the latter included the zone's surrounding area.

Now, the Liberals are ducking any responsibility for the fact that they effectively (if inadvertently) gave police powers they were never intended to have. "The language of the regulation is very clear," a spokesperson said, even as other senior Liberals acknowledged that they themselves were confused by it. Meanwhile, the Premier is nowhere to be seen, having not talked to reporters yet this week.

Behind the Liberals' nonchalance about the whole affair lies what seems to be a wild overreaction to behaviour of the previous government.

Mike Harris's Conservatives were accused of helping to overheat the standoff with aboriginals in Ipperwash Provincial Park, at which unarmed protester Dudley George was killed by the Ontario Provincial Police. So the Liberals came to office vowing never to interfere with police tactics - a policy they've maintained with religious conviction ever since.

It's raised eyebrows before, particularly when the government seemed indifferent to the controversial way the OPP handled another standoff with natives in Caledonia. But it's now been taken to new and absurd extremes.

Nobody else will be arrested under this month's botched regulation. But the message to police is clear: The current government couldn't care less how they do their jobs, even when they're doing them wrong - and wrongly applying that government's decisions in the process.