In a scene that looked more like a low-production talk show than the launch of an election platform (read 8 April article by Ivison), the Conservatives revealed their baggie of goodies to Canadians which included, among other things, money to compensate Québec for their HST transition that the Bloc Québecois had unsuccessfully lobbied for in exchange for their support on the budget just a few short weeks ago. A clear sign that this was an election the Conservatives desperately wanted to avoid. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Like its predecessors in 2006 and 2008, the 2011 edition of the Conservative punishment agenda (pages 34-37, 45-51, 55-56) is presented as not being tough on taxpayers if one is to limit their analysis to the price tags attached to their proposals provided on page 65 of their platform.
Below is a list of Conservative proposals with new costs listed in their platform:
- "Support Victims of Crime", $60 million in new funding each year beginning in 2012-2013 ($240 million over the next 5 years);
- "Drug-Free Prisons", $10 million in new funding each year beginning in 2012-2013 ($40 million over the next 5 years);
- "Combating Human Trafficking", $5 million in new funding each year beginning in 2012-2013 ($20 million over the next 5 years);
- "Ending Sentence Discounts for Multiple Child Pornography and Sex Offences", $50 million in new funding each year beginning in 2012-2013 ($200 million over the next 5 years);
- "Tackling Contraband Tobacco", $10 million in new funding each year beginning in 2012-2013 ($40 million over the next 5 years); and
- "Helping At-Risk Youth Avoid Gangs and Criminal Activity", no new money as $8 million a year is already earmarked ($40 million over the next 5 years).
While there are a number of questions that could be asked about each of these policies, a few of which I support that should be allocated additional funds at the expense of new prison spending (e.g. funding for victims and youth), the Conservatives, as well as their political rivals, need to be pressed on how they arrive at their figures to allow for a full debate on the merits of these proposals.
As noted by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer in a February 2010 report (read here), budget projections involving the Correctional Service of Canada ought to include the following: “analysis, key assumptions, drivers, and methodologies behind the figures presented. Further, basic statistics such as headcounts, annual inflows, unit costs per inmate, per full-time equivalent (FTE) employee, and per new cell construction have not been made public”.
While I'm not arguing that this kind of detail has historically been included in the platforms of any political party in Canada or necessarily should be as it would probably discourage many voters from reading it, all aspiring office holders should be asked about how they arrived at their numbers and respond with the details listed above so that Canadians can have as clear of an understanding as possible about the implications of the policies of those they vote for.
It also needs to be noted that a number of Conservative proposals with penal policy implications do not have new costs listed in their platform, including:
- "Reintroduce Legislation to Combat Terrorism";
- "Combat Human Smuggling";
- "Re-introduction of Law-and-Order Legislation"; and
- "End the Ineffective Long-Gun Registry".
While it is obvious that gutting a program such as the long-gun registry should theoretically not result in additional expenditures that would be immediately visible, the reintroduction of significant pieces of legislation, most notably the package of 'law and order' bills that died on the Order of Paper with the triggering of this election (read 26 March post) - a package of measures that will likely result in an influx of new prisoners serving longer sentences with fewer chances of release - without a price tag is suspect.
Although it may be possible that the costs of these proposals are already factored into the fiscal framework of the federal government, two questions need to be raised:
1) Can the Conservatives point to evidence that shows that the costs of these initiatives are already included in the fiscal framework of the Government of Canada?
2) Given that the independent Parliamentary Budget Officer concluded in his March 2011 report (read here) that the Conservatives did not comply with Brison's Question of Privilege that requested, among other things, a full accounting of the costs of their punishment agenda to the federal treasury, are the Conservatives now willing to share that information with Canadians? And if not, why should Canadians place their trust in a government that doesn't reciprocate in turn and trust them to digest this information and support this component of their legislative agenda?
The Conservatives should also be questioned about the costs of their punishment agenda not included in their election platform. For instance, the costs of CSC's Long-Term Accommodation Strategy that was to be submitted last month according to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (read 17 March post) were nowhere to be found.
Where applicable, Canadians should also ask what the costs of these measures will be to the provinces and territories because it appears that Harper's commitment that "his government would have to work with the provinces to pay for more prison spaces" (read 23 September 2008 article by Whittington), a promise he made a few years ago, is now a distant memory with the Conservatives now arguing that their provincial-territorial counterparts are in support of all their measures. The latter claim also needs to be probed further.
If an election triggered over the governments contempt for Parliament, where the provisions of the costs of their flagship initiatives is not enough to convince the Conservatives to be more transparent with Canadians, one has to wonder what it would take for this veil of secrecy to be lifted. Perhaps 33 million Canadians screaming "show me the money" would be more effective. Then again, perhaps not.
A History of 'Sound' Fiscal Management
Budgeting in this area has not been a priority for the non-fiscal Conservatives as their
2006 punishment platform (see pages 21-27) included few details about the costs of their 'just us' measures. In fact, I could only find the following expenditures in that document: $100 million for hiring police, victim assistance, youth 'crime' prevention programs (p. 23); $50 million for your youth at risk (p. 24); and another $10 million annually for victim assistance (p. 25).
With a number of legislative proposals in the 2006 platform that brought them to power, it appears as though the Conservatives have long held the view that they can pass major bills without paying major bills.
Their 2008 punishment platform (see pages 35-40) included even fewer cost projections for their 'just us' approach: a $10 million annual increase for the Youth Gang Prevention Fund until 2013 (p. 36) and an additional $30 million in "Support for Stronger Justice" from 2008 to 2013 (p. 41).
With an avalanche of non-costed sentencing measures proposed in the 2006 platform and another 8 sentencing measures proposed in the 2008 platform costed at $30 million, that any news outlet would give Harper and company any benefit of the doubt on fiscal management in this area of public policy is alarming.
For instance, an editorial published last night on the Globe and Mail's website (read here) made the following pronouncement:
"And when it comes to crime, the Conservatives jettison fiscal prudence in order to assert moral values. New planks include an omnibus crime bill within 100 days; mandatory drug testing for all prisoners; and mandatory jail time for repeat cigarette smugglers. To their credit, the Conservatives account for the cost of new proposals. They failed, however, to acknowledge the far greater costs of their original proposals, now expected to reach an extra $1-billion a year – a failure that led to a parliamentary finding of contempt, which led to this election".
I'm not quite sure what the Conservatives should be given credit for. Apparently, providing any number for the cost of bad public policy will do. And I suppose if the Conservatives insinuated in their previous election platforms that their 'law and order' measures would cost next to nothing in the grand scheme of things or nothing at all and the budget of the Correctional Service of Canada has almost doubled since the Conservatives entered office in 2006 (read 1 March post), we should just accept the projections offered in their 2011 platform where they exist (e.g. "drug-free prisons", p. 65) and accept at face value measures that do not have costs attached to them in the current platform without asking for proof that they're already included in the fiscal framework (e.g. "re-introduction of law-and-order legislation", p. 65).
When commentary like this is published by a reputable news organization, presumably for the sake of 'balance' and 'objectivity', it's not surprising that the penal policy discussion in Canada has become more about which meaningless taglines stick ('soft on crime', 'dumb on crime', 'hug-a-thug-coalition') than matters of substance, such as how to prevent the complex conflicts and harms in our communities that we call 'crime', and address the needs of the victimized and criminalized, which are often pushed to the margins.
While articles such as the piece written by Ian Brown (read here) provide evidence that some are interested in fostering serious discussions, the dominance of divisionary rhetoric circulating in the public sphere poisons any sensible debate that is to be had (read 24 March editorial by Goldstein).
Then again, I'm just a criminologist - one of those wizards Stephen Harper warns Canadians about who say "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" (read 12 February 2008 post). As one of those bothersome academics who asks questions and points to some inconvenient facts I'm also supposedly 'soft on crime' (read 23 September 2008 article by Whittington), a real live Pillsbury Doughboy.
Raising arguments and questions, such as those I've asked above, also makes me one of those so-called out-of-touch criminologists "who work in ivory towers", who apparently share the same standpoint in a discipline where "debating values, foundational principles and the greater public good" does not occur (read the March 2011 commentary by Lee, p. 1), who are said to not engage various stakeholders by restricting "debate to their own community" (p. 2), and "who are affluent, privileged people" (p. 17) in need of "outreach programs to inform" us of the realities on the ground (p. 18).
I suppose if you say it enough times it must be true (read 8 April article by Gardner).
Just ignore the body of criminological literature that specializes in the subject matter or the contradictory evidence and arguments that you are aware of (read 3 March SECU transcript), and the phantom menaces about criminologists become real.
Indeed, it is the academics and not the Conservatives - whose record on ballooning prison expenditures and secrecy regarding the full costs of a punishment agenda that likely won't enhance safety in our communities in the long-term - Canadians should really be worried about.