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Dangerous precedent

Imagine you were accused of breaking the law, but your father, the federal cabinet minister, said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll just slip a little retroactive change into a piece of legislation, and make what you did legal.”

As much as you wanted to escape from the charge, you’d have to wonder if something that blatant, that ridiculous, would even work.

Well, in the self-serving world of Canadian federal politics, that’s exactly what’s happening.

The federal access to information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, had recommended that charges be brought against the RCMP, after the force destroyed gun registry information.

Instead, the federal Conservatives inserted a section into the federal omnibus budget that would exempt the RCMP from providing the information, and backdate the change to before the gun registry was legally removed.

Legault makes a good point: if that can be done to absolve the RCMP from one type of charge, it can be done to absolve others from other offences.

“We could do the same thing after investigating potential electoral fraud. We could erase these things retroactively,” she said in an interview with the Canadian Press. “This is the kind of precedent that we are proposing to set with these proposed amendments. Now that is why this matter is very serious.”

Legault has started court action.

The federal government is downplaying the change, essentially saying that it was just removing anomalies between two pieces of legislation. That suggestion, however, misstates what is actually being done: the RCMP acted to remove information from access at a time when it appears they were not legally allowed to withhold it. And the federal Tories are trying to clean up the mess by legislative sleight of hand, with their cute little magic trick hidden in a block of budget legislation.

“The government, the Parliament of Canada, has already decided to abolish the long-gun registry,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at an event in Windsor, Ont. “The RCMP have acted fully within Parliament’s intention in destroying the data in the long gun registry.”

Think carefully here: when the prime minister is saying is that the major police force in this country answers not to the existing laws of the land, but instead to the force’s perception of the intentions of government - even when those intentions have not been passed into law - we have a serious problem.

What else might be retroactively deemed to be legal? Misleading voters about the location of their polling stations through robocalls? Overshooting your election campaign limits (but only if you are in the right party)?

The information commissioner had recommended charges; the political arm of government is halting those charges by changing the rules.

Parliamentarians should stop and very carefully consider passing this portion of the federal budget. The precedent it sets is that the federal cabinet can decide to place people who do its bidding above the law.

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