OTTAWA - Justin Trudeau is keeping a wary distance from a Liberal proposal to legalize, regulate and tax prostitution just like any other commercial enterprise.
A resolution to legalize the sex trade is being pushed by the Liberal party's youth wing and is to be debated at the party's national policy convention next month in Montreal.
But the Liberal leader, who has enthusiastically embraced a resolution passed at the last convention to legalize marijuana, signalled Thursday that he doesn't favour taking the same approach to prostitution.
He played down the importance of the resolution and indicated that he views prostitution as a more complicated issue than pot.
"The priority of the Liberal party ... around our policy convention in February in Montreal is on economic success for the middle class. That is the centre of our focus," he said during a campaign stop with a provincial Liberal byelection candidate in Thornhill, Ont.
He noted that the prostitution resolution is just one of many to be debated at the convention and said he looks forward to hearing what Liberals have to say on the subject.
The debate is timely given that the Supreme Court has thrust the prostitution issue back onto the federal political agenda.
The top court last month struck down the country's prostitution laws as unconstitutional and gave Parliament a year in which to come up with a new legal regime to govern the sex trade. The court ruled that the current prohibitions on brothels, street solicitation and living off the avails of prostitution create life-threatening conditions for prostitutes, violating their right to life, liberty and security of the person.
"For now, I'm just very, very mindful that the Supreme Court came down very clearly that the current approach is not protecting extremely vulnerable women and sex workers and we need to make sure that we are finding a way to keep vulnerable Canadians protected from violence that surrounds prostitution but also is intrinsic to prostitution," Trudeau said.
In French, Trudeau went further, saying it's important to recognize that "prostitution itself is a form of violence against women." He called for a "responsible, informed debate" on the issue.
Trudeau also said Liberals are "certainly going to look at" the so-called Nordic model, which penalizes those who purchase sex, not those who sell it.
Conservatives have used the mere existence of the resolution to attack Trudeau for wanting to legalize both pot and prostitution. Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, a former Ontario police chief, waded into the fray Thursday.
"Justin Trudeau's Liberals have been clear: making prostitution and illegal drugs more accessible to Canadians are their priorities," Fantino said in a written statement.
"Under the leadership of Prime Minister (Stephen) Harper, our government is focused on protecting our communities from the effects of illegal drugs and vulnerable women from the harmful effects of legalized prostitution."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, attending a caucus strategy session in Ottawa, did not directly respond when asked if he'd consider legalizing prostitution. He said the issue is complex and needs to be studied by a parliamentary committee, hearing from police, health experts, community groups and sex trade workers.
Mulcair chastised Harper for failing to immediately launch such a study following the Supreme Court ruling.
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