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July 28, 2001

Obstruction at Justice

National Post

Justice Ministry officials briefed the media about a major bill last April, hours before they bothered to tell Members of Parliament. This breach of protocol was seen by many MPs as tantamount to contempt of Parliament. Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, apologized and said she had "learned a valuable lesson." But has she? A vitriolic debate on the National Post's letters page between the Minister, one of her bureaucrats and fellow Liberals suggests that April's lapse may have been part of a larger pattern of behaviour.

Senator Anne Cools and MP Roger Gallaway, both Liberals, objected to a letter from one of Ms. McLellan's officials about consultations being conducted by civil servants on questions of custody and access to children in divorce cases. They say the consultations have been a "mimic of Parliament," that bureaucrats are improperly making political decisions, and that, as we argued here on July 19, the consultations have been a sham -- with no records kept, the minister and all other elected representatives absent, and so on and so forth. Ms. McLellan riposted a week ago that that she was committed to "positive outcomes for children and their families following a separation or divorce," and asserted that the officials were "acting under my direction." This, in turn, sparked a further rebuke from Sen. Cools and Mr. Gallaway.

It is becoming clear that Ms. McLellan and some of her senior officials simply do not accept the core recommendation of a December, 1998, parliamentary report, For the Sake of Children, which called for the introduction of joint custody as the norm in divorce cases. The recommendation was the product of a 23-member special joint committee of both the upper and lower houses of Parliament comprising members from all parties. The committee held 55 meetings, heard more than 520 witnesses and travelled the country. In the end, after long and arduous democratic debate, it was agreed that a system of shared-parenting, with divorced mothers and fathers having equal rights regarding children, should replace current legislation that discounts the rights of fathers and paternal grandparents.

That, apparently, is not good enough for Ms. McLellan, who has allowed Parliament's recommendation to gather dust for three years. Some members of the Liberal caucus say the Minister and her bureaucrats are in thrall to extreme ideological feminism, which regards men with contempt and shared parenting as a means of oppressing women.

If the Minister is committed to creating "positive outcomes for children," and if she genuinely respects Parliament, she should accept the conclusions of For the Sake of Children and immediately introduce legislation incorporating them. If she thinks the report does not genuinely represent the view of Parliament and of Canadians in general, she could test her opinion by tabling draft legislation as soon as the House of Commons returns this fall and refer it to Parliament's Justice Committee after first reading. This would again subject the issue to open and democratic debate.

To dither, obfuscate and mouth saccharine platitudes about children while thwarting the will not just of Parliament, but of Canadian citizens, is an affront to democracy.

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