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July 26, 2001

Liberals assail minister's lawmaking

McLellan accused of undemocratic tactics with child custody bill

Robert Fife, Ottawa Bureau Chief
National Post

(Anne) McLellan

OTTAWA - Two outspoken members of the federal Liberal caucus yesterday accused Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, of undermining Canada's democratic process by turning the lawmaking process over to unelected civil servants.

In a strongly written letter to the National Post, Roger Gallaway, a Southern Ontario Liberal MP, and Anne Cools, an Ontario Senator, accuse the Minister of running a closed-door job and ignoring Parliament in preparing new legislation surrounding child custody, access and divorce.

Mr. Gallaway, who co-chaired a joint Senate-Commons committee on the issue two years ago, had complained the government consultations completed last month were "an affront to Parliament" because MPs were excluded.

He characterized the Justice department hearings as a deliberate attempt by the bureaucracy to circumvent his committee's report, which recommended giving separated and divorced parents an equal say in the raising of their children under a new concept called shared parenting.

Ms. McLellan and Virginia McRae, a Justice department lawyer, who co-chaired the $1.5-million hearings, denied Parliament was being cut out of the process.

The nationwide hearings were conducted to bring more people's opinions into the process and allow provincial and territorial governments to participate, they said. In a letter to the National Post last week, Ms. McLellan said MPs would be able to scrutinize and hold public hearings when the legislation is presented, likely next year.

But Ms. Cools and Mr. Gallaway took issue with Ms. McLellan's understanding of the parliamentary process, arguing MPs and Senators play a central role in the consultations leading to the drafting of legislation.

"Anne McLellan, Minister of Justice, responded with a haughty and hollow letter on July 20 that was a collection of empty, contrived sentences that proved first, that her divorce consultations are not a public process, as is a parliamentary hearing, and second, that her department staff are active and political, not passive and administrative as they should be.

"The Minister herself should learn of the proper relationship between ministers of the Crown and Parliament, the people's representative assembly," they wrote in response to Ms. McLellan.

Mr. Gallaway and Ms. Cools criticized the Minister for responding to them via the letters page of a newspaper.

The two Liberals also took issue with Ms. McLellan's assertion that her department-run hearings were necessary to consult the provinces.

"She is attempting to justify her delay in placing proven necessary amendments to the Divorce Act before Parliament. The Divorce Act is not a shared jurisdiction at all. It is exclusively federal. The fact is that precious little about these consultations has anything to do with the best interests of the children of divorce and has everything to do with politics, particularly the political views of some departmental staff."

Farah Mohamed, an aide to Ms. McLellan, yesterday expressed frustration with the two critics.

"It is unclear why Mr. Gallaway and Senator Cools continue to question the Minister's commitment to seek the public input, working with provincial and territorial counterparts, in seeking what is in the best interests of children," she said.

Mr. Gallaway has suspected the Justice department is seeking to undermine his report. He notes the department-run hearings were effectively private and no verbatim public record was taken.

Feminist groups, such as the National Association of Women and the Law, are fighting the proposed changes in the Gallaway report, claiming it could lead to a "further subordination of women."

They boycotted the consultations because they refused to sit at the same table as men, although they did provide written briefs and may be given a special hearing even though the process is completed.

John Bryden, a fellow Ontario Liberal MP and a long-time activist for more open government, has similar criticism of Ms. McLellan over a secret review of the federal Access to Information Act.

Mr. Bryden was so angered at the absence of public hearings into Access to Information legislation that he formed an unofficial, all-party Parliamentary committee. It will hold public hearings next month.

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