Peter MacKay’s Guide to the Safe Practice of Democracy

How to never talk to your kids about public policy
Minister of Defence Peter MacKay stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, December 1, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Rule #1, Children should not be exposed to discussions of policy proposals that Peter MacKay disagrees with (ie. “bad policy”)

Last week, Justin Trudeau spoke to a group of school children in Brandon, Manitoba. In response to a question from one of the kids about his position on marijuana, Mr. Trudeau apparently explained his preference for legalization and regulation.

A day later, Justice Minister Peter MacKay declared himself outraged, proclaiming in a written statement that Mr. Trudeau was “directly delivering a message to children now that recreational drug use is okay.” The evidentiary record provided for the statement from Mr. MacKay’s ministerial office was this tweet by the managing editor of the Brandon Sun. (Scroll down and you’ll find a subsequent tweet from the editor noting that Mr. Trudeau said marijuana was “bad for kids.” A year ago, when he merely supported decriminalization, Mr. Trudeau specifically warned a different school group about the dangers of smoking marijuana.)

In the fundraising letter, Mr. MacKay explained of Mr. Trudeau that, “His plan to make marijuana available like alcohol and cigarettes available is bad policy, but this crosses the line. Promoting his plan to children is completely unacceptable and grossly inappropriate.”

Probably, to be entirely safe, school children should be shielded from all discussions of public policy, but at the very least adults should be careful not to discuss policy that is not government policy in the company of children. Provided said government policy is not “bad policy.” (Note: government policy is never “bad policy.”)

Rule #2, If a child asks you a question that relates to a policy position you hold, but Peter MacKay disagrees with said policy position, do not answer the child’s question directly.

This seems fairly straightforward. Mr. Trudeau’s comments on the legalization of marijuana were apparently in response to a question from a student about the legalization of marijuana. Rather than answer the child’s question with a full explanation of his position, Mr. Trudeau should have simply and only told the young person that drugs are bad. Children cannot understand complexity and should not be expected to do so. (Note: Same goes for adults.)

Rule #3, Statements made by backbenchers in the company of children are less concerning because backbenchers are basically powerless to do anything about whatever they say.

Mr. MacKay appeared on The West Block this weekend and was presented with the fact that Conservative MP Scott Reid had, just two months ago, explained to a class of students why he favoured legalizing marijuana. Here is how Mr. MacKay responded to that fact.

Well I disagree with Scott Reid as well but I can tell you number one, he’s not a leader.  He’s not in a position to ever change the law. 

Now, granted, some might argue that this sort of statement amounts to “bad policy,” of the sort that should probably not be discussed in front of children. Presuming there are no children reading this, we might note a couple issues.

Philosophically, this is at least a rather restrictive reading of what an individual MP can do as compared to what the leader of a party might accomplish. Of course, due to the power that is possessed by a party leader, he or she is better positioned than the average MP to initiate and compel a legislative initiative. But whatever the levers of power, the party leader and the average MP have the same basic ability to propose a bill and they face the same threshold: win the support of a majority of the House and Senate for your proposal and your proposal can become law.

Mr. MacKay’s position is also literally and historically problematic. Since the Conservatives formed government in 2006, three Conservative MPs and two Conservative senators have proposed amendments to the Criminal Code that were passed into law. Conservative MP Joy Smith has managed to get two such private members’ bills passed. Conservative MP John Weston successfully initiated a change to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. And Conservative MP Dan Albas successfully initiated an amendment to the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act that makes it easier to transport wine across provincial borders.

Probably that last one should not be discussed in the company of children, lest they get the idea that their elected representatives were encouraging the consumption of alcohol.

Revised Rule #1, Children should not be exposed to discussions of policy proposals that Peter MacKay disagrees with (ie. “bad policy”), until said children reach Grade 10

Mr. MacKay noted one other difference between what Mr. Trudeau did and what Mr. Reid did

As I understand it, those were older kids.

The exact ages of all of the children in the room when Mr. Trudeau discussed his views on marijuana policy are not entirely clear, but Mr. Reid is reported to have spoken to a room full of Grade 10 students. It is unfortunate that Mr. Trudeau did not more rigorously follow this widely accepted cut-off.

All matters of public policy can be freely discussed in the company of those who have successfully graduated from Grade 9 and begun their Grade 10 year. Those who have not reached that point should be restricted from any discussion that might involve mention of a “bad policy” and so should probably be locked up in their bedrooms without access to the outside world or, at the very least, instructed from an early age to check with the Justice Minister after hearing any discussion of public policy so as to ensure that they are not led astray.