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Liberals to debate legalizing prostitution

Liberals to debate legalizing prostitutionRed umbrellas, that are used as a symbol for sex workers rights, are seen in front of a rally at Allan Gardens park to support Toronto sex workers and their rights in Toronto, Friday December 20, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

OTTAWA - First it was pot; now it's prostitution.

Liberals broke new ground at their last national policy convention, becoming the first federal party to advocate legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana.

And now some Grits want the party to take the same approach to the world's oldest profession.

British Columbia Liberals are proposing a resolution for the party's next national convention aimed at ensuring sex trade workers are legally able to run a "safe and successful business," which would be licensed to safeguard employees, employers and clients and taxed just like "any other commercial enterprise."

The resolution was initiated last year by Young Liberals in B.C. and was later adopted by the provincial branch of the federal party as one of 10 priority resolutions it would like to see debated at the national convention in Montreal next month.

It's not certain at this point that the resolution will make it to a vote, although it will at least be debated in a policy workshop. Nor is it certain that it will garner the support of convention delegates or the party's leader, Justin Trudeau, who has said nothing on the subject since the country's prostitution laws were struck down last month by the Supreme Court of Canada.

But in a sign of just how politically risky such a move could be, Justice Minister Peter MacKay pounced Wednesday on the resolution's very existence to accuse the Liberals of wanting to "enhance Canadians' exposure to harm."

"I do not believe that government facilitating increased access to drugs and the sex trade is the right thing to do for Canadians — especially not for our most vulnerable citizens, our children," MacKay said in a statement.

Still, it would seem an opportune time to gauge the mood of party rank and file on the subject, given last month's Supreme Court ruling.

The top court ruled that the prohibition on brothels, living off the avails of prostitution and street soliciting imposes dangerous conditions on prostitutes and thus violates their right to life, liberty and security of the person. It gave Parliament one year to come up with a new law, thrusting the hot potato firmly into the court of federal politicians.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has signalled its intention to ensure prostitution remains a matter of criminal law, perhaps by adopting the so-called Nordic model of penalizing those who purchase sex, rather than those who sell it.

"That is one model we're looking at," MacKay confirmed Wednesday.

B.C. young Liberals are hoping debate on their resolution at next month's convention will help shape Trudeau's response on the issue.

"I think it's good for us to continue to be bold," said Justin Kaiser, who was B.C.'s young Liberal president when the resolution was adopted and is now a candidate to become national young Liberal president.

"I think young Liberals have always pushed the party to be bold."

Indeed, it was young Liberals who successfully pushed the party to officially support same-sex marriage and legalization of pot.

Trudeau, who initially preferred the less dramatic approach of decriminalizing marijuana, eventually embraced the party's official position on the matter and, as leader, has become a champion for outright legalization.

And some of his arguments for doing so — that the war on drugs has failed and has helped create a criminal underworld — could apply equally to the war on prostitution, as the resolution makes clear.

"The judicial and criminal systems over the years have consistently marginalized the most vulnerable people in our society," the resolution says.

"Limiting sex trade workers to the street puts them at a greater risk of human trafficking, assault, murder and other violent and malicious crimes."

However, prostitution is a more divisive issue than pot, raising questions about morality and exploitation of women. And, as such, it would likely be much riskier politically for Trudeau to advocate legalization, especially since he's already fending off Tory attacks that he's soft on drug crime.

Kaiser dismissed suggestions passage of the prostitution resolution, combined with the party's stance on pot, could prove a lethal political combination.

"I don't think there's that risk," he said in an interview. "I think what many people see is we're not afraid to take on tough issues, that we're willing to stand up for Canadians from all backgrounds and not just lawyers from downtown Toronto."

Still, Trudeau's wariness on prostitution since the Supreme Court ruling speaks volumes about his own assessment of the risk.

His office neatly straddled the fence when asked about the resolution to legalize prostitution.

"What the Supreme Court has unanimously said is that our laws do not do enough to protect some of the most vulnerable in our society," Trudeau spokeswoman, Kate Purchase, said in an email.

"Ultimately, the government must respond in a way that addresses both community safety and the security and safety of all those involved in the sex trade."

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