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G20 probe is more smoke and mirrors from the Liberals

When it comes to the G20, old habits evidently die hard.

In June, Dalton McGuinty's Liberals got in trouble because of some combination of misinformation and misdirection regarding the meaning of the "five-metre" rule affecting the international summit's security zone.

Three months later, they managed to achieve rather similar confusion as they announced their response to that controversy.

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On Wednesday morning, it appeared the government was taking some overdue responsibility. Roy McMurtry, a respected former attorney-general and Ontario chief justice, has been called in to conduct an independent review. "'Secret law' probe ordered," blared a headline on the front page of the Toronto Star, which got wind of the announcement early.

The widespread perception, for a few hours, was that Mr. McMurtry would be looking - at least in part - at how the government handled its temporary amendment to the previously obscure Public Works Protection Act. Why hadn't it announced a change to the law that affected access to a large chunk of Toronto? Why did it allow the police to misrepresent the rule, leading Torontonians to believe they could be arrested for coming within five metres of the G20's security wall? And what responsibility did the government bear for the fact that at least a couple of people were arrested under a law that didn't really exist?

In a mild echo of their confusion over their own law back in June, some government officials seemed to believe Mr. McMurtry would be able to cover that ground. His terms of reference focused on the pre-existing Public Works Protection Act, not the regulation passed for the G20. But the call for recommendations on "public notice requirements relating to the designation of a 'public work'" - which is what the security zone had been branded - were thought to provide enough leeway.

That was until Community Safety Minister Jim Bradley emerged from the legislature to disappoint a large and expectant pack of reporters with the news that Mr. McMurtry's scope would be very narrow indeed. He would be mandated to offer advice on how Second World War-era legislation, meant to allow inspection of people entering government building or utilities, could usefully be updated - but not to look at the specifics of how the law was (mis)handled during the G20.

The Liberals' rationale for not commissioning an independent probe into their conduct - that Ombudsman André Marin is already doing one - is actually quite defensible. Mr. Marin's track record, and his apparent animosity toward the government that tried to get rid of him earlier this year, suggest he'll pull no punches in criticizing the government.

But if Mr. McMurtry isn't being called in to review the sensitive issues around the G20, it raises the question of why he did get pulled in. Recommending updates to legislation that's not in and of itself especially controversial could be done by government staff; it hardly seems the work of a former chief justice.

One way or another, Mr. McMurtry appears to have been used as a prop. The government seems to have wanted to give the appearance of responding to this summer's controversy without actually doing so. The timing of the announcement might also have been intended to distract from Wednesday's release of a critical report by the province's Environmental Commissioner; if so, it certainly succeeded.

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Whatever the government was up to, it was just about the furthest possible thing from the mea culpa that had briefly been expected.

Instead, it was gamesmanship of one form or another. As reporters tried to make sense of it, some Ontarians might have got the impression that the Liberals were taking responsibility for their lackadaisical protection of civil liberties. For now, at least, that impression - like so many others around the G20 - would be false.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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