Tory bill doesn't fit

New crime legislation caters to Conservative voters but fails to address the root causes of crime

Protesters demonstrate against the Conservative crime bill in Winnipeg on Nov. 8, 2011.
Protesters demonstrate against the Conservative crime bill in Winnipeg on Nov. 8, 2011.
Credit: 
Supplied by Paul Graham / paulsgraham.ca

There are some aspects of electoral politics that I could do without.

Take the Conservative government’s new crime bill — a piece of tough-on-crime legislation that any rational government would throw in the garbage. The bill includes new mandatory minimum sentences and tougher sentencing for young offenders.

Unfortunately, the bill is misguided for several reasons.

First, the crime rate in Canada is the lowest it has been in 38 years, according to Statistics Canada.

Second, the bill costs hundreds of millions of new dollars that we need to fight the recession.

Third, if you want to fight crime, you don’t do it by tackling the symptoms of crime, as this bill proposes. You do it by tackling the root.

That means improving the economy and spending money on education, not on tougher sentencing laws and prisons.

For these reasons and more, I couldn’t get my head around the logic of the Conservative crime bill — until I realized it has a lot to do with money.

After all, you’ve got to throw “meat” to your donors if you want them to give you money. So, presto, you get tough-on-crime legislation that plays well with the Conservative base.

There are some problems with this rationale, though. The kinds of donors that the Conservatives are wooing — or rather, re-wooing — are still going to vote Conservative. If you think about partisan loyalties in Canada, citizens who identify as Tory are the most likely to vote Tory on election day.

So if there’s little chance that they’ll vote for the other guys, what’s with all the pandering?

First of all, voters who identify with a given party may simply stay home on election day. One of the biggest challenges for political parties is getting their supporters to go to the ballot box, and promises that cater to core party values can motivate these folks to get out and vote.

But that’s not all. Even if your base comes out and votes for you on election day, you still need their money.

Cash is oh-so-important for election campaigns. Money makes attack ads, brochures and lawn signs. Donations pay for other crucial aspects of campaigns, like local offices and phone banks, databases and professional campaign staff for both party leaders and individual candidates.

For examples of how the Conservatives have used their money wisely, just think of the past couple elections. Anyone remember the “Stéphane Dion is not a leader” attack ads? Or more recently, the “just visiting” slogan against Michael Ignatieff?

The Conservative use of attack ads is just one example of how the party has used its strength in fundraising to give it an edge in election campaigns.

Another example of the Tories spending money wisely is how the party targeted its spending in the 2011 election campaign. The Conservatives looked at the results from the 2008 election to see which ridings they were the closest to winning.

According to an April 17 article in the Globe and Mail, the Conservatives “targeted 30 key opposition-held ridings where they aim[ed] to out-spend, out-organize and out-hustle their opponents.” And it paid off — the Conservatives gained 23 seats on election day.

Attack ads and targeted spending are two things that helped the Conservatives win the 2011 election. These tactics were so effective because the Conservative Party of Canada has raised more money than all the other parties combined for the past several years.

That’s why when the government decides to spend a bunch of cash on new crime legislation, it may indeed be bad governance. But it’s fantastic politics.

Elections cost money, and because some groups are willing to pay money for policies that would make many people raise an eyebrow, good politics will sometimes trump good government. And that’s when I start questioning the wisdom of democracy.

But we can do some things to fix this problem, particularly through education.

Students could be taught more about politics and economics in high school. Coupled with a focus on current events, graduates would emerge from high school with a better understanding of how the world works. Canadians would also be less susceptible to the political parties that take advantage of their ignorance.

But it’s also important that we find a way for more students to continue their education after high school. The government could encourage both corporations and citizens to donate more money to higher education.

Canada could also spend more taxpayer dollars on funding research and development at home. Spending on education policy will not only improve Canada’s long term economic performance, but it will help Canadians discern whether parties are engaging in good politics or good government.

Both individuals and politicians alike must step up on their own. As citizens in the internet age, it has never been easier to find out if our MPs are doing their jobs well. On the other hand, the Prime Minister should have faith that if his party does a good job, they’ll get the money they need without having to pass foolish laws.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

Jordan Ray is a staff writer for the Journal.

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