Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Parliament mired in crime-bill mess

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The people in charge of process and rules in Parliament are scrambling after the Senate ended up debating the wrong version of a crime bill passed by the House of Commons.

In a rare error that appears to have happened once in the last 20 years, the version of Bill C-479, the Fairness for Victims of Violent Offenders Act, which was passed by the House of Commons, was not the version that made its way to the Senate for debate.

Speaker Andrew Scheer said this week the House will inform the Senate of the mistake when both chambers return later this month.

The real problem isn't that nobody is exactly sure how the rules will allow for this mistake to be fixed, since the Senate has already passed the wrong version of the bill through second reading. That's just a bureaucratic SNAFU that will be sorted out with little, if any, care from most Canadians.

The problem is there are serious questions about whether this bill is even constitutional, because it will affect prisoners already convicted of their crimes. And some MPs are wondering if this is a symptom of how private-members' bills are handled, with little time for debate, and few resources allocated to analyze them.

C-479 amends the Criminal Code to make an offender wait five years for another parole hearing, rather than the current two. It initially wasn't clear whether it would be retroactive. So the government stepped in with a number of amendments, including one that made the bill apply to current prisoners.

That change could potentially make the bill unconstitutional, especially since the Supreme Court recently struck down another new crime bill because its provisions, too, were applied retroactively.

Liberal MP Wayne Easter complained private members' bills, as in this case, are often introduced with almost no time for MPs to analyze them. Easter said he was given the proposed amendments the same day he was expected to vote on them, and he did not understand the bill was being made retroactive until after he voted on it.

"If you're going to do a proper job of justice, you need to do a comprehensive analysis," said Easter.

If a justice bill comes from the government, it gets reviewed by Department of Justice lawyers to make sure it meets all sorts of tests, including constitutionality. Private members' bills get no such scrutiny.

Sometimes they deal with heady topics without much effort at getting it right.

Manitoba MP Steven Fletcher introduced two private-members' bill earlier this year to legalize physician assisted suicide. Fletcher is passionate about the issue and introduced the bill even though it goes against the Conservative government's policy.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay says the House of Commons already debated and voted down the idea in a 2010 bill.

Fletcher's voice takes on an angry edge when he dismisses that criticism, saying the 2010 bill from a Bloc Quebecois MP was basically four paragraphs long and while the intention was good, it was not well thought out.

"In 2010 a poorly worded bill brought forward by a separatist party on a difficult issue, it was never going to pass," he said.

But that poorly worded bill, which made it to the floor, is now used as a reason not to bring up the issue again.

"Bad legislation is worse than no legislation," Fletcher said.

He said it doesn't have to be that way. While backbench and opposition MPs don't have the resources of government departments to vet their bills, they do have the Library of Parliament, which can provide a lot of support and information as MPs draft their legislation. Fletcher also said MPs can and, at least in his party, do take advantage of the expertise and interest of colleagues to vet and discuss ideas and bills.

The onus, says Fletcher, is on MPs themselves to do the hard work and get their bills right.

Mia Rabson is the parliamentary bureau chief and national reporter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2014 A13

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