Cynical populism behind government’s crime agenda

In a time when Conservatives don’t really act conservative anymore, there is one field in which a more right-wing mindset has gradually advanced in Canada: crime policy.

The Conservative Party has pushed an aggressive approach to be “tough on crime” with a combination of mandatory minimum sentences on a broad range of offenses from growing as few as six marijuana plants to car theft, tightening up bail restrictions and pushing for mandatory breathalyzer tests. Why has crime been at the centre of government policy initiatives?

A poll commissioned by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, a small-c conservative “do-tank” found that Canadian attitudes have hardened about crime and punishment.

In a time with spiraling deficits, corporate bailouts, MPs parading around with giant cheques, abuse of access to information laws and a growing centralization of power in the PMO,
Conservatives see an opportunity to reassure their base that they aren’t, in fact, Liberals.

To secure the base and make inroads in immigrant communities in the 905 the Conservative Party has embarked on a very clever campaign of fear. Using populism designed to exploit the fears of a public driven by the sensationalism of the mainstream media they have even forced Liberals to line up and declare their support for Conservative crime bills out of fear of being branded as soft.

This drive towards being tough on crime is about using populism to advance political fortunes and not about ideology. This can be seen clearly when the Conservative government has repeatedly killed its own “important” legislation with prorogation after prorogation. They are keeping the crime issue alive to beat up the Liberals. It has the dual purpose of also distracting Canadians from more pressing issues that may put the government in a negative light.

Are there any grounds to justify the course taken by the government? Hardly. Crime has been in a steady decline since the late 1980s without a tightening up of crime sentences.

Any argument that bases itself on deterrence as an effective justification is false: there is no credible evidence to suggest deterrence prevents crime. The United States locks up more people as a percentage of its population than any other industrialized nation, and yet its crime rate is one of the highest. If the government is going to make the case to ratchet up sentencing on non-violent crime it needs to have facts to back it up.

Furthermore, policies need to be costed out responsibly. The cost of Bill C-25 to repeal 2-for-1 credits for time in pre-trial custody was announced by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to be 90-million over two years. In fact the costs would soar to $2 billion between federal and provincial governments as revealed by Kevin Page, head of the Parliamentary Budget Office.

Similar costing needs to be done on each of their policies that would see the size of prisons swell.
Aside from the financial costs of this push to becoming “tough on crime” are the personal costs.

The size of government is growing bigger, and this threatens our liberties. Nowhere is this clearer than with the government’s support of mandatory breathalyzers.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has staked out the government’s support for the Justice Committee’s recommendation that random roadside breathalyzer tests be instituted. This would allow police to force people to be tested for alcohol consumption at roadside stops whether or not there is due cause.

This is a blatant intrusion on our individual liberties guaranteed in the Charter and hundreds of years of English common law tradition, including our security of person, right to not be subjected to unreasonable search and a presumption of innocence until being proven guilty.

To break with our traditional liberties is a dangerous slope our society cannot afford to go down. The size of government grows ever larger, and each and every individual loses out.

As a classical liberal I am deeply suspicious of any legislation that expands the size of government. While I concede the role of government is to protect the rights and property of its citizens, for such legislation to be justified it needs to be based on facts and not cynical populism, it needs to preserve our liberties and it needs to be fiscally responsible. It is also not even close to being amongst the important issues that impact our society today.

Canadians should not be distracted by this populist ploy. Too much is at stake.

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