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opinion

For most of Canadian parliamentary history, the private member's bill was the last refuge of "nobody" MPs who toiled in backbench or opposition obscurity. When they got noticed at all, it was usually because of the sheer eccentricity or silliness of their proposed legislation.

The late New Democratic MP Max Saltsman never enjoyed a higher profile than after he tabled a private member's bill in 1974 proposing that Canada annex the Turks and Caicos Islands. During his 15 minutes of fame, Mr. Saltsman defied Pierre Trudeau's notoriously condescending description of individual MPs as "nobodies" once they left Parliament Hill. But his legislation died anyway.

Backbenchers and opposition MPs typically only got to sponsor bills that became law when they involved changing the name of their ridings, or other inconsequential matters, such as recognizing hockey and lacrosse as Canada's national sports.

It is ironic, then, that the most centralizing Prime Minister's Office in living memory has repurposed the private member's bill as a vehicle for advancing the government's tough-on-crime agenda. Instead of empowering backbenchers, however, Stephen Harper's PMO is using them as pawns in its lex talionis approach to criminal justice, inventing a host of new crimes and punishments in the process.

As The Globe's Sean Fine recently reported, no fewer than 25 of 30 crime bills that have been recently passed or remain before Parliament were tabled by individual MPs, rather than cabinet ministers. Private member's bills are subject to less debate in the House and scrutiny at parliamentary committees. Hence, changes to the Criminal Code are being made without adequate inquiry into their consequences or compliance with the Charter of Rights.

In Mr. Harper's Ottawa, the private member's bill has become a potent political marketing tool. Conservatives tout these changes to the Criminal Code in fundraising pitches to their base. And the backbenchers sponsoring the bills use them to raise their profiles in their ridings.

One of these bills, the Fairness for Victims Act, would make prisoners convicted of a violent crime and initially denied parole wait more than twice as long to reapply for early release. This without regard to the nature of the crime or evidence that the current parole system imposes undue hardship on victims. The bill would make conditions in Canada's overcrowded federal jails worse and cost untold millions of dollars to keep otherwise parole-ready convicts locked up.

C-479, sponsored by Ontario MP David Sweet, had received such little scrutiny that the Senate almost took up the wrong version. Were it not for that amateurish glitch, it would likely have passed with little media attention.

Another Ontario backbencher, David Tilson, was luckier. His bill to make it a specific crime to deface war memorials or cenotaphs received royal assent in June.

There are already provisions of the Criminal Code dealing with mischief. But Mr. Tilson, with the government's backing, felt that disrespecting veterans in this manner warranted its own crime category and mandatory minimum sentences, to boot.

In 2006, there was a media uproar after three drunken Canada Day partiers (including two minors) urinated on the National War Memorial in Ottawa. The adult among them was charged with mischief, but the charge was dropped after he apologized and did community service at a veterans' home. He insisted he had no idea that he had peed on a war monument. It was a clear case where a bit of education and restorative justice worked.

That did not deter Mr. Tilson, however. He said he was moved to table his bill after vandals threw eggs at the cenotaph in his hometown in Orangeville, Ont.

Asked at a Senate committee to provide data on the incidence of such vandalism, Mr. Tilson said: "I haven't gone into that extent." Nor could he justify the mandatory sentences of a $1,000 fine for a first offender and jail time for recidivists. "I have no scientific rationale for that, either … I just looked at the fact that they are severe penalties and are meant to be severe penalties."

John Howard Society executive director Catherine Latimer explained the idiocy of that approach.

"Good criminal law principles prefer broad categories of offences rather than particular offences addressing possibly transient concerns, news stories or public hysterias," she told the committee. To command respect, the law "must display a principled, rational, coherent structure rather than a series of ad hoc responses to particular concerns."

It's a lesson this PMO has yet to learn.