While this narrative is a powerful one in that it gestures to the fact that Canada is experiencing a prison construction boom that will add 6,500 prisoner beds at the provincial-territorial level and at least 3,400 prisoner beds at the federal level in a context of declining police-reported 'crime' rates, and is buying billions of dollars worth of fighter jets that some have argued do not match the needs of our military, all in a context of a fiscal crisis, there are a number of pitfalls the Liberals may encounter, particularly vis-à-vis their talking points on 'crime'.
A first pitfall of this narrative is that, on the surface, it seems that the Liberals run the risk of appearing not to take 'crime' seriously. In their push for increasing our reliance on imprisonment, Conservatives have often attempted to neutralize their critiques who oppose their plan and cite the declining police-reported 'crime' rate by scoffing that their detractors like to pretend that 'crime' does not exist. They have even deployed "unreported crime" (see 3 August 2010 post) and pointed to the low police-reported 'crime' rates of the 1960s (see 16 April 2010 post) - a period where many more 'crimes' were unreported (e.g. domestic violence) and Statistics Canada's methodology was under development - as a way to explain away these figures.
While Liberal Public Safety Critic Mark Holland has been effective in countering these talking points by arguing for an increase in initiatives that would prevent victimization in the first place, the absence of "community safety" or "building communities" in their developing platform (see their Ideas & Issues) is an open invitation for the Conservatives to show how they're "doing something" while their opponents propose to "do nothing" when it comes to making the places we live, work and play safer.
To counter such attacks, that have and will continue to come, the Liberals need to step up their efforts to point out the fact that building prisons is not an approach that enhances public safety in the long-term as 'crime' is a complex community issue requiring complex community-based solutions (see 25 May 2010 post), and that building more prisons does not meet many of the pressing needs that victims may have such as counselling, compensation, an acknowledgement of the harm they have endured and feeling they have a place in the justice process (see 6 April 2010 post). And if they are to hang their hats on prevention, then they need to a develop and communicate a thoughtful plan to demonstrate that they are serious about 'crime' in contrast to the ineffective and costly approach taken by the Conservatives while in government.
Another potential trap the Liberals have set for themselves is the way in which they have aligned themselves with police and victims' groups to keep the gun registry in place. While the tactic of parading police and victims around to support one's political position is an effective strategy to put pressure on opponents who, if they disagree, will need to take the unpopular approach of critiquing these often unassailable groups, they are constructing a discursive prison for themselves.
Since their arrival in government in 2006, the Conservatives have been masters of parading frustrated law enforcement officials and victims who, whether or not they believe imprisonment is the best solution to the problems they have faced, will support 'something' being done that acknowledges their cause. By adopting this technique from Harper's play book, the Liberals are setting themselves up for the same problem the Conservatives currently face in their push to eliminate the gun registry.
When Parliament resumes in a few weeks, what will the Liberals do when the Conservatives parade their stalking-horses for state repression to put pressure on opposition MPs to pass bills like C-4: An Act to amend the Youth Criminal Justice Act or point to the likes of boogeymen such as Clifford Olson to eliminate old age security for all prisoners, most of whom are nothing like him? Will they have the fortitude to say that police officers and victims are not experts on sentencing and penal policy, and present prevention as an alternative way to meet their needs?
It will be in these moments where the rubber will meet the road and we will find out if the Liberal Party is serious when they say "prisons and planes" or "the real priorities of Canadians".