4 min

Sex, marriage & politics

Candidates covet Ottawa Centre seat

Credit: Capital Xtra files

Although the date for the next general election is still up in the air, candidates for Ottawa Centre are already fighting for the riding’s coveted parliamentary seat.

NDP candidate Ed Broadbent, who served as his party’s leader during its most successful period from 1975 to 1989, has returned to politics after more than a decade’s absence – much of which he spent as head of the International Human Rights Centre -to face off against Liberal Party nominee Richard Mahoney.

While he has never held elected office, Mahoney is no political neophyte. A counsel to the Ottawa law firm of Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, Mahoney served as Prime Minister Paul Martin’s executive assistant during his failed leadership campaign in 1990 and remains Martin’s advisor now.

Also running is Conservative Party candidate Michael J Murphy, a lawyer and consultant, who won his party’s nomination Mar 30. Murphy did not return our call before our editorial deadline.

Broadbent and Mahoney agree that many of the issues directly affecting Ottawa Centre’s queers will be at the forefront of discussions in and around the next government.

These issues include same-sex marriage, the bawdy house section of the Criminal Code, hate crime protections for gays and lesbians, and the removal of the “artistic merit defense” in child pornography law.

Both politicians support the government legalizing civil marriages for same-sex couples. They differ, however, when it comes to Parliament holding a free vote on the matter.

Mahoney says he would favour a free vote on all human rights issues – including gay marriage – as it would not only respect the opinions of others, but would help to foster “more of an acceptance of the decision” reached by the government on the issue.

“There’s a lot of people in the Liberal Party who don’t share my views on same-sex marriage, but I don’t want to drive them out simply because I disagree with them,” says Mahoney. “I think that the government should have more free votes on everything. Unless it is a matter of confidence in the government or some core campaign commitment, I think there should be a free vote on it.”

Broadbent disagrees.

“If the Liberals are going to say they think that it is desirable to have same-sex marriage, then there should be a party vote on it. It should be government policy,” says Broadbent. “There are going to be differences on this, but our party is of the position that this is a human rights issue – and parties who take stands [on an issue] should vote as parties.”

Each candidate speaks strongly in favor of protecting members of the queer community from hate crimes. Both men say they support Bill C-250, NDP MP Svend Robinson’s private member’s bill to extend hate crimes protection to gays and lesbians.

“I don’t believe that most people commit hate crimes against gays and lesbians. But since it does happen, why not have that criminal protection, and why not spell it out specifically,” says Mahoney. “If you say in law what’s right and what’s wrong on hate, that’s yet another message of equality and I would be proud to live in a society that had that type of protection.”

In September, the House of Commons voted in favor of Robinson’s bill, which currently is before the Senate. The bill could be defeated in a vote or, if an election is called before the bill receives final approval, the legislation would die. Both men say they would vote in favour of another bill offering similar protection to the queer community.

Broadbent adds, however, that he would also be committed to personally working with Robinson to help craft and then put forth a similar bill for Parliament’s consideration.

“I’m sure the party would be back on it, either with that strategy (private member’s bill) or some other to deal with the same issue,” he says.

When it came to modernizing the bawdy house laws, Mahoney and Broadbent are not as definite in their opinions.

Many in the queer community say the laws – particularly those regarding consensual sex among adults – are antiquated and need to be repealed. It was the bawdy house law that allowed police to raid a Calgary bathhouse in 2002.

While both candidates say they would need to review each specific section of the Criminal Code before commenting directly on repealing any portion of it, they did agree that the government has no place regulating the private, consensual sex lives of Canadian adults.

“I think that the basic default is people should be able to do what they wish as long as it doesn’t interfere with someone else’s rights,” says Mahoney, “and I think that, as Trudeau said, the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, and I think that, by and large, it doesn’t.”

Broadbent echoes Mahoney’s comments.

“The general principle for me is that people’s private sex life should be unregulated – totally unregulated,” he says. “The ethical principle of this is: what people want to do in private with their sex life, as it is with any other aspect of their private life, the state should be out of the way.”

When it comes to the removal of the “artistic merit defense,” however, Mahoney is more cautious about taking a position on the issue than Broadbent, who speaks out strongly against its removal.

The potential passage of Bill C-12 (formerly Bill C-20) has caused concern in the queer and artistic communities. The bill, a reaction to the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2001 acquittal in the Robin Sharpe case, seeks to remove the concept of artistic merit and replace it with “the public good” – a move some critics have called unconstitutional.

Broadbent calls any attempt to remove the artistic merit defense “a mistake,” as it could “open the door more readily to unreasonable censorship.

“I regard reasonable censorship, for example [laws] against child pornography, as appropriate,” he says. “But, I think that this change is too risky, in terms of impinging upon our artistic integrity and creative rights of Canadians.”

Although Mahoney says he understands the artistic merit argument, he said he would want to review what the “actual impact of the changes might be” before commenting on the bill itself.

“I honestly would have to look at it in more detail,” he says. “Why am I cautious on that? Because it has to do with child pornography, and I would want to know that there was a real danger to freedom of expression before I voted against that bill.”

Ottawa Centre – a diverse community that boasts one of the highest queer population percentages in Canada – has been without parliamentary representation since last September, when former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed Liberal MP Mac Harb to the Senate.

In early March, with the riding’s seat vacant for almost six months, Prime Minister Paul Martin finally set the by-election date for Nov 29. But if, as expected, Martin calls an election for late spring or early summer, the by-election will be folded into the general election.