Harper’s big election bets are budget and crime

TheStar.com – opinion
Published On Sun Apr 10 2011

The “Stephen Harper Government” — as it conspicuously and repeatedly refers to itself in the Conservative party’s election platform — is playing double or nothing in this campaign. They aren’t just going to tame the budget deficit — they now promise to do it a full year ahead of schedule. They aren’t just going to fight crime — they’ll tie a dozen crime bills all together and push them through Parliament in the first 100 days of a new mandate.

Give the Conservatives credit for clarifying the election debate. If you liked how they governed with a minority over the past five years, you’re really going to like life under a Conservative majority if they manage to win one on May 2.

Start with the fiscal pledge. Less than three weeks ago, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget aimed to eliminate the $40.5 billion federal deficit in the 2014-15 financial year. Now the Conservatives say they can do it 12 months earlier than planned. How? By conducting a “comprehensive strategic and operating review” that will save $4 billion a year through “greater efficiency and effectiveness.”

There’s no indication of what might be thrown overboard to find that money. This may be just the type of wishful thinking — surely there’s some waste lying around that no one will miss — that all governments indulge in. But if there really is a plan, now would be an excellent time to spell out what kind of targets a re-elected “Stephen Harper Government” will have in its sights after May 2.

The Conservatives are also putting their “tough-on-crime” agenda at the front of the display window. Evidently frustrated by pesky opposition questions about the cost and purpose of its crime bills, the government would bundle all the measures into one comprehensive bill and make it law in the first 100 days of the new Parliament.

In presenting his party’s platform, Harper painted a picture of a country cowering in fear of crime. “Canadians want to be able to walk down the street without looking over their shoulders,” he said. Of course we want and deserve safe streets. The Prime Minister’s rhetoric, though, slides dangerously into fear-mongering.

Public perception always lags reality, but the facts show that crime, including violent crime, is on a steady downward trend. Canada’s crime rate fell 3 per cent last year, according to Statistics Canada, and is down 17 per cent compared to a decade ago. The Crime Severity Index, a weighted average of all criminal offences reported to police, has dropped 22 per cent from the 1999 level. Toronto’s index showed a 4 per cent decline, the third lowest among Canadian cities.

Then there’s the cost. The government has used every excuse imaginable to avoid detailing the price tag of putting many more people behind bars. It says just one of its measures — locking up thousands of young offenders — would cost $2 billion over five years. The parliamentary budget officer puts it at somewhere between $10 billion and $18 billion.

We wish the Conservatives could work up as much moral and financial enthusiasm for an education agenda or an innovation agenda. But at least we have a clearer idea of where a new “Stephen Harper Government” would take us.

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