Should the prostitution law get a free vote?

At the very least, it wasn't covered in the last party platform

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

The Conservative caucus is apparently not entirely enthusiastic about the government’s new prostitution law—and it shouldn’t be too surprising there’s a diversity of opinion on a difficult issue in a group of 160 people.

So how about a free vote?

Now, granted, over the last two weeks, specifically, on the issue of abortion, I’ve laid out the arguments for why the idea of a conscience vote is perhaps flawed or outdated—see here and here—but could you mount a case that the government’s new bill on prostitution should be beyond the party whip?

First, a new prostitution law was not mentioned in the Conservative party’s 2011 platform. (This is understandable, given that the Supreme Court only struck down the existing law in December 2013.)

You could certainly argue that one’s view of prostitution is informed by either moral or religious values. There does not seem to be much precedent in Canada to support a free vote, but New Zealand’s law on prostitution was passed via a conscience vote in 2003, and a pair of bills in Australia, both proposed by backbenchers, have been subject to conscience votes (and also at least one bill at the state level).

But what about the Conservative party’s 2013 policy declaration? At section 102, the party declares as follows:

The Conservative Party rejects the concept of legalizing the purchase of sex.

We declare that human beings are not objects to be enslaved, bought or sold.

We shall develop a Canada-specific plan to target the purchasers of sex and human-trafficking
markets through criminalizing the purchase of sex, as well as the acts of any third party
attempting to profit from the purchase of sex.

Is that sufficient to bind Conservative MPs to the government’s new law? I imagine that argument might be made.

On the other hand, if you wanted to be a troublemaker, you might point out that the Conservative party platform in 2006 included the commitment that a Conservative government would “make all votes in Parliament, except the budget and main estimates, ‘free votes’ for ordinary Members of Parliament.” And the current policy declaration includes a section on free votes that reads as follows:

The Conservative Party believes in restoring democratic accountability into the House of Commons by allowing free votes.

All votes should be free, except for the budget, main estimates, and core government initiatives.

On issues of moral conscience, such as abortion, the definition of marriage, and euthanasia, the Conservative Party acknowledges the diversity of deeply held personal convictions among individual party members and the right of Members of Parliament to adopt positions in consultation with their constituents and to vote freely.

Does prostitution qualify as a core government initiative? Could it be considered an issue of deeply held personal conviction?

The latter is at least a question for those who believe questions of abortion should receive free votes. Again, I tend to see the wisdom in doing away with the idea that certain issues should be considered matters of conscience; it’s too hard, I think, to draw lines around a certain set of issues that meet some criteria in that regard. But there might a more interesting debate in sorting out just how much of a party’s agenda its MPs are expected to support in the House. All of it? Most? Only the important parts? If so, how do we identify the important parts?

You could argue here that the system, as it currently is, basically works these matters out: No Prime Minister or party leader would last long if his or her caucus thought he or she was pushing particularly bad legislation. But the argument here is about how much looser the system might be allowed to be. Could Conservative MPs be allowed to vote against the government’s prostitution legislation? Could they publicly—which is to say, not anonymously—discuss their concerns with the bill?

The same, of course, should be asked of Liberals and New Democrats. There is already a fairly interesting debate to be had on prostitution. Imagine how much more interesting it might be if the arguments did not break along party lines.

(Of course, the necessary follow-up to that hypothetical is whether we would end up with better legislation as a result of a less partisan debate.)