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Federal government opens up prostitution law rewrite to public input

OTTAWA - The Conservative government wants to hear from the public about how to rewrite the prostitution laws that were struck down by the Supreme Court late last year.

A month-long, online consultation period on the Justice Canada website began Monday and runs to March 17.

"Our government is concerned about the significant harms that flow from prostitution to communities, those engaged in prostitution and other vulnerable persons," Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in a release.

"Doing nothing is not an option. We are therefore asking Canadians right across the country to provide their input through an online consultation to ensure a legislative response to prostitution that reflects our country's values."

In a Dec. 20 ruling, the high court unanimously struck down laws against street soliciting, living on the avails of prostitution and keeping a brothel.

The Supreme Court ruled the laws endangered sex workers and were violations of the constitutional guarantee to life, liberty and security of the person. It gave the government one year to come up with new legislation before the current Criminal Code provisions lapse.

However, in the meantime, several provinces say they will not prosecute prostitution-related offences and that in some cases existing charges are being thrown out, drawing the ire of the federal justice minister.

NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin expressed deep skepticism of the government's track record on public input.

"You've got a minister that's almost announced the law that he's going to present," she said in an interview.

"He didn't leave much room for changing his mind, but we'll see."

MacKay said earlier this month that the government had already started drafting new prostitution legislation and planned to consult police and provincial governments.

Adding online public input to the mix is not unprecedented for the Conservative government, although it tends to pick its spots.

The government held consultations on a new victims' bill of rights last year, and in that case, the public comment period ran for almost five months, from May 1 to Sept. 27.

The Department of Justice also consulted the public in 2010 on drunk-driving laws and family law reforms, while a 2008 effort to harmonize federal law with Quebec civil law was also opened to public input.

"I think it makes perfect sense," Liberal justice critic Sean Casey said of the consultations on prostitution law.

"They have a year to do this and to get it right. There's a better chance of getting it right if they listen to the public."

Casey called it "a little out of character (for the Harper government) when you look at what they're doing with the Fair Elections Act and with some other legislation they brought in in the past."

The government is stiffly resisting public hearings on its current, sweeping overhaul of the Elections Act. Pierre Poilievre, the minister in charge of electoral reform, dismissed an NDP proposal for travelling committee hearings as a "costly circus." His parliamentary secretary predicted a "gong show."

A discussion paper on the Department of Justice's website lists three international approaches to prostitution: decriminalization or legalization, as practised in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Australia; prohibition, as practised in most American states; and abolition, or the so-called Nordic Model, which targets johns and other third parties but not prostitutes.

Boivin said she'd like to see a truly national consultation, including televised government ads informing citizens how to make their views known.

"'Please voice your opinion on prostitution, a message from your government of Canada' — during the Olympics!" said the New Democrat, laughing.

"You might have a lot of people answer, but I doubt very much they'll promote that."

Those who wish to comment can do so through the website at http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/cons/curr-cours/proscons-conspros/index.html#2014_02_17 or by emailing Consultations.Prostitution@justice.gc.ca.

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