Peter MacKay's record on the justice file should be enough to lose him the leadership bid

A reminder of his legacy as justice minister, from Michael Spratt

Michael Spratt

Despite the best efforts of Peter MacKay to sabotage Peter MacKay’s bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, it appears that somehow Peter MacKay is still the presumptive frontrunner.

There have been gaffes. Many, many gaffes. Like the time when MacKay’s boys in short pants shut down his interview with CTV, or pretty much any time when @PeterMacKay tweets anything.

MacKay must be thanking his gods that candidates of substance have all declined to enter the leadership race.

Because MacKay cannot compete with substance. And he has the track record to prove it.

Earlier this month MacKay wrote to Justice Minister David Lametti urging that any new federal legislation on physician assisted-dying include a freedom of conscience exemption for health care providers so they are not “forced to betray deeply-held religious and personal beliefs.” 

MacKay should know the assisted-dying file well. He was, after all, Canada’s Minister of Justice in February 2015, when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the total prohibition on the practice, finding that the outright ban violated the rights of competent adults who were suffering intolerably as a result of grievous and irremediable medical conditions.

The Supreme Court gave the then Conservative government a year to pass a constitutional law.

But Justice Minister MacKay, decided to sit on his hands and in April of that year, he told The Canadian Press that Canadians “should not expect that there will be any legislation before the election.” 

For nine months MacKay ragged the puck while Canadians suffered and died under an unconstitutional law.

But now he has opinions.

In offering his five-year late thoughts, MacKay stressed that, “having served as Canada’s attorney general and minister of justice under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, I can speak of the importance of the role in upholding the Charter rights of all Canadians.”

But can he? 

Or is this another case of Peter MacKay trying to sabotage Peter MacKay because it seems that he is begging us to take a look at his unenviable legal track record.

Minimum sentences

During his time in government and as minister of justice, MacKay drank the mandatory-minimum-sentence Kool Aid. The Harper government introduced minimum sentences for drug trafficking, gun crimes and sexual offences. Most of which have been struck down by Canadian courts as a form of cruel punishment that outrages the standards of decency and were inconsistent with constitutional rights.

But this is not controversial. Almost all of the criminological evidence strongly suggests that minimum sentences don't deter crime, reduce re-offense rates, or make our communities any safer. 

In fact, the government’s own research found that minimum sentences “may actually increase recidivism,” making our streets less safe.

Mandatory minimum sentences are a myopic and small-minded “solution” to complex social issues.

And as Justice Minister, MacKay pushed through even more minimum sentences and they were also – as expected – found to be unconstitutional

He should have known. I told him so.

Cuts to the Department of Justice research department

MacKay’s minimum sentence madness is not just a symptom of a lack of intellect but indicative a dishonest thought process that prefers ideology over good policy.

In 2015, responding to questions about his unconstitutional legislation, MacKay told the CBC that “As we do with every bill, there’s a thorough and vigorous vetting of the legislation to see that it’s charter-compliant, that it is consistent with the Constitution.”

Yes, the Department of Justice Act requires examination of every government bill to determine whether any provisions are inconsistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The problem is that MacKay didn’t like what his lawyers were telling him.

Over the life of the Conservative government Justice Department research contracts decreased by over 90 per cent — from $450,000 in 2010 to a mere $41,000 in 2014 — and the number of full-time legal researchers was cut from 34 to 18 over the same period.

The purported justification for the cuts was budgetary. However, according to an internal government report, the Justice Department’s research budget was actually slashed because its findings “may run contrary to government direction.” 

The same internal report noted that “there have been examples of (research) that was not aligned with government or departmental priorities.”

A Justice Minister that believes in fact-based legislation doesn’t starve himself of the funds required to find those facts. Unless he is not really interested in facts at all. 

There, in a nutshell, was Peter MacKay’s approach to drafting laws: Ideology first, evidence never.

Victim fine surcharges

MacKay’s ideology even stretched so far as trying to extract blood from a stone – he legislated mandatory victim fines that were imposed on all convicted offenders.

It’s not hard to imagine situations where a mandatory fine would be blatantly unjust: a homeless man who steals because he’s starving, or an alcoholic living on the street who breaches a court condition by taking a drink. These are the types of people who were being ordered to pay hundreds of dollars in mandatory fines. 

These mandatory fines actually interfere with rehabilitation and contributed to a cycle of offence and re-offence. 

MacKay’s suggestion was that these impoverished and often homeless offenders should sell off  "a bit of property" to pay his fines.

In the end MacKay’s mandatory victim fine law didn’t help victims. It makes them.

That is why the Supreme Court of Canada found MacKay’s mandatory victim fines unconstitutional.

Public fight with SCC over his unconstitutional legislation

And when MacKay did not get his way in Court, he lashed out publicly. 

When his minimum sentences were stuck down he publicly slammed the Supreme Court’s decision. It was an unprecedented move. Canada’s Justice Minister and Attorney General taking his frustration to a newspaper’s opinion section to attack the judiciary and undermine the rule of law. 

So, it should have come as no surprise that when Stephen Harper got into a public dust-up with Canada’s top judge over the ill-fated and ultimately illegal appointment of Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court. Mackay was quick to join in the unseemly mudslinging. 

Public confidence in the administration of justice be damned.

Propriety out the window.

Appointing his friends as judges

But if you have a judicial application in and were in Peter MacKay’s wedding party – well, then, MacKay is your man.

This is the man who wants to lead the Conservative Party of Canada.

This is the man who would have us believe that he is qualified to serve as Canada’s next Prime Minister.

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