First pot, now prostitution: Liberal party to debate legalization

BC wing of the federal Liberal party puts forward convention resolution to ensure sex trade workers are legally able to run a "safe and successful business."
Justin Trudeau will be attending his first party convention as leader when Liberals converge on Montreal next month. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

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.

The British Columbia wing of the federal Liberal party is 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."

Proposal originated with BC youth wing

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 ultimately make it to the floor of the convention for a vote, although it will at least be debated in a policy workshop.

But it would seem an opportune time to gauge the mood of the party on the subject, given that the Supreme Court last month struck down the country's prostitution laws as unconstitutional — a development the drafters of the resolution had not anticipated.

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.

Supporters hope to convince Trudeau to sign on

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has not articulated his views on the subject as yet and the B.C. young Liberals are hoping debate on their resolution at next month's convention will help shape his response.

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

Arguments similar to those made in pot debate

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 the world's oldest profession, 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."

Pro-legalization stance could be politically risky

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."

Trudeau's office coy on his current views

Still, Trudeau's wariness on prostitution — he's said nothing about the Supreme Court ruling — speaks volumes about his own assessment of the risk.

His office neatly straddled the fence when asked about the B.C. Liberal 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."