Lawful Access: Bill On Online Surveillance Not The First With Motherhood Title

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OTTAWA - It's safe to say the "Protecting Bitumen from Internet Predators Pipeline" is not in the cards for Canada.

But when Megan Leslie made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion Thursday in the House of Commons, the New Democrat MP was taking more than just an environmental swipe at Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

She was talking about the perversion of language.

Feel-good titles for government legislation have become standard Conservative salesmanship, a development highlighted this week with the introduction of a complex and controversial electronic surveillance bill.

The "Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act" is just the latest in a long line of Conservative bills with seemingly unassailable, motherhood handles.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews drew a straight line between the legislation's "short title" and opponents of the bill's privacy-invasive elements.

"He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers," Toews scolded a Liberal MP critic earlier this week in the House of Commons.

That kind of incendiary, us-and-them talk has Opposition MPs spitting nails.

"I'm fed up!" NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin said Thursday.

"We always knew they were naming their bills ... I'm trying to find a polite expression ... that would just get the opposition mad — that would make it almost impossible for you to look at it in a very logical, sound, intelligent way."

The names make a handy political marketing tool for the government, while driving opponents to distraction. But experts in the field say there's something more troubling at play.

"I think we want our politicians on both sides of the aisle to be debating the substance of the bill and not some slogan," Adam Dodek, a professor at the University of Ottawa who teaches public law and legislation, said in an interview.

And the sloganeering can become dizzying.

On Thursday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney introduced the "Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act," which he said cleans up gaps in the previous "Balanced Refugee Reform Act" and includes many elements of a previous Parliament's unpassed "Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act."

The lengthy titles can become almost comical — think of last year's "Supporting Vulnerable Seniors and Strengthening Canada's Economy Act" — prompting parliamentary wags such as Megan Leslie to mock rather than fume.

The Harper government penchant has been compared to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat" movie subtitle: "Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."

It hasn't always been this way. Traditionally, legislation in Ottawa has been given neutral, objective names that broadly reflects the content.

Dodek, who teaches the legally demanding technicalities of drafting proper legislation, said torquing a bill's title can be misleading, especially when dealing with complex legislation that covers many legal areas.

"It's an attempt to frame the debate but also potentially mislead the public as to what the contents of the bill are," said Dodek. "It's a communications spin within a legal document. That's the fundamental problem."

The practice began in the United States and migrated to Canada during the 1990s under the Mike Harris Conservative government in Ontario, according to Dodek and other political scientists. The McGuinty Liberals in Ontario, who once derided the practice, have picked it up as well.

Under the federal Liberals, there was once a "Jean Chretien Pledge to Africa Act."

Jonathan Rose, a Queen's University expert in political communications, said the key is that such titles can "reframe an issue."

"It's a page right out of the American politics playbook," Rose said in an email.

"Think of (George W.) Bush's 'Clean Air Act,' which was really a deregulation of environmental protection legislation, or the 'Open Skies Act,' which is really about deregulation of airspace."

Paul Thomas, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, has watched New Democrats do it in his province, too.

"It seems to be used a form of political ammunition," said Thomas.

"To position your political opponent in a particular spot in the ideological spectrum or in the ongoing, continuing election campaign that's become much of our life these days."

By Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press

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