By HUGH WINSOR
Friday, August 22, 2003
NORTH BAY -- Spooked into reacting too quickly to an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that legalized same-sex marriages, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his cabinet are now paying a steep political price for their mishandling of the issue with members of the Liberal caucus.
The deeply-held differences among Liberal MPs about accepting same-sex marriages were no secret well before the June 10 Ontario court decision moved the issue onto the front burner.
It has been bubbling through the lower courts for a couple of years and the Commons justice committee has been holding hearings across the country at the request of Justice Minister Martin Cauchon. The committee was so evenly divided on what it should say in its report that chairman Andy Scott had to vote to break a tie. (He opted to support same-sex marriages.)
But by referring a draft bill to accept same-sex marriages to the Supreme Court days after the Ontario decision and before ordinary MPs could have any further say, the cabinet has effectively pre-empted Parliament.
The Prime Minister assured his MPs at a caucus retreat here yesterday that they will still have their say and their vote when the draft bill is tabled.
But the offer is disingenuous because if the Supreme Court does say the proposed bill conforms to the Charter of Rights, the government will not accept any substantive changes in the parliamentary debate for fear of offending the court.
The debate will have all of the relevance of the debate in Parliament on the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney said MPs could debate until the cows came home but not one comma of the treaty could be changed.
Prime Minister Chrétien and Justice Minister Cauchon have not been quite as blunt, but both signaled yesterday that while they are prepared to study suggestions put forward in the emotional two-day discussion, they have no intention of modifying their course.
This means that whatever the merits of its policy, the cabinet is now vulnerable on process and has given opponents a whole new avenue of protest.
Why wouldn't MPs be angry knowing they will likely face a fait accompli and thus have been deprived of input until the government's course was set? No wonder they want the Prime Minister to introduce the draft bill in Parliament before the court vets it.
Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Cauchon have an explanation of sorts for their hasty action in June. They were taken aback by the speed with which Ontario began implementing the Court of Appeal decision and the fact the decision explicitly said there was no reason to delay giving same-sex couples their rights. Cabinet decided it had to act quickly.
The decision was released the week Parliament rose for the summer and there was no time to take the planned response to caucus. Moreover, the Ontario Court of Appeal judgment was the fifth adjudication in favour of recognition of same-sex marriages.
Better to accept the inevitable, the cabinet decided, but by taking the initiative with a Supreme Court reference, it could add protection of religious freedom /to the mix.
The Prime Minister also argues that MPs have had lots of input through the justice committee and previous caucus discussions.
All this said, however, the cabinet did have the option of going to Parliament first and the Supreme Court second. So the course Mr. Chrétien adopted has an air of arrogance about it and underlines how little weight he gives to caucus sensibilities.
The caucus will get another shot in September at persuading the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues to bring the bill forward, but it is likely to have about the same impact as the pleadings of the last two days.
The practical impact of all this is that the Chrétien cabinet has put off parliamentary debate on the issue until a new leader of the party is chosen and in all likelihood an election is held. That's what scares Liberal MPs who fear the issue could impair chances of re-election in close ridings.