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Consent bill awaits final approval

NDP mum on how they'll vote

HE HAS A CLEAR POSITION. Andrew Brett presented at the justice committee in Ottawa Mar 29. NDP MPs, however, are keeping mum about how they'll vote.

Two months ago, the NDP wouldn’t say how they would vote on raising the age of consent from 14 to 16. While justice critic Joe Comartin publicly supported it, he and his caucus said they would wait to see what the bill looked like after house amendment procedure.

After all, the major NDP and Liberal amendments were thrown out by Conservative justice committee chair Art Hanger.

Now, the answer is in. The bill looks the same; no revisions. But that hasn’t stopped NDPers, including out lesbian house leader Libby Davies, from continuing to hum and haw over the bill. Even Comartin, the architect of the NDPs support for Bill C-22, won’t say whether or not he’ll vote for it.

“The [New Democratic] party itself is on a free vote on this one, so we can all vote the way we want,” Comartin told Capital Xtra. He estimates that about half the party will vote in favour of C-22.

The NDP have been criticized for supporting the government’s so-called tough-on-crime agenda on C-22 and C-10, which increases mandatory minimum sentences.

“If [Stephen Harper] wanted to go to an election, he could either call an election —or he could play up this idea that we’re fighting all these crime bills.”

C-22 has all-party support and C-10 will pass with the support of the NDP.

Which means it’s all a matter of timing. The consent bill jumped one of its last hurdles Apr 23, when it passed the report stage. That means that the government is now able to introduce the bill for its third and final reading at its leisure. The legislative calendar doesn’t list it for the period ending May 4, although the calendar is subject to rapid change, especially during a minority parliament.

It took from June to November for C-22 to get from first to second reading. Then the bill lay dormant on the order paper until March, when the justice committee heard testimony from about 25 groups on the bill (and gay groups opposing the bill were almost frozen out of having their say). It’s impossible to predict when C-22 will resurface for third reading in a volatile minority parliament where the rules change daily.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the Liberals will have a whipped vote on C-22, representatives from Marlene Jennings’ office told Capital Xtra. Usually, votes on bills introduced by the governing party are whipped. One Liberal staffer suggested that exceptions can often be made for dissenters — like Vancouver gaybourhood MP Hedy Fry, who is adamantly opposed to the age increase — if the bill fails to capture the attention of the mainstream media.

During the last days of justice hearings on C-22 on Apr 17 and 19, MPs debated amendments that would have created legal shelters for young mothers and teens requiring sexual health services. Two amendments sought to strike a discriminatory anal sex law but none were adopted.

As the Conservative chair had promised, Art Hanger ruled all the amendments out of order that dealt with the Criminal Code’s section 159, a law that sets the age of consent for anal sex at 18 and which carries up to a 10-year jail term.

Jennings challenged the chair’s decision, a procedural move used mostly in minority parliaments. By a simple majority of the opposition-controlled committee, the amendment could have moved forward. Jennings did not have the support of two members of her own party — Larry Bagnell and Derek Lee — so the question failed by a 6-5 margin.

“I don’t want to frivolously overrule the chair all the time,” Bagnell told the committee.

Lee denies that he killed the amendment.

“It’s outside the scope of the bill. It’s just so clearly outside the scope of the bill,” Lee told Capital Xtra after the meeting.

“I was simply supporting the chair on this issue.”

Following Jennings’ attempt to strike section 159, Comartin introduced two amendments, both of which were ruled out of order. One would have exempted medical professionals from reporting patients’ partners to the police, and a second would have harmonized the age of consent in the anal sex law with the proposed measures of C-22.

Comartin tried to overrule the chair, but both attempts failed by one vote. Lee voted with the Conservatives both times. He argued that the anal sex law — struck down by provincial courts in Ontario, Quebec, BC, Alberta and recently in Nova Scotia — was not being enforced any more.

However, the 2006 Nova Scotia decision — made more than 10 years after the law was struck in Ontario — set aside a then-recent conviction. Lawyers presenting to the justice committee in March told MPs the anal sex law was still being used to prosecute (mostly) gays.

“I know, but the trend is clearly there.” said Lee. “I’m not saying that there won’t be charges laid, but it’s better that the charges not be laid. I think that you’ll see that increasingly, that there won’t be any charges laid.”