Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Good policy vs. good politics

Riddle me this, Michael Bryant. If "being smart on politics is dumb politically" then does that mean being dumb on politics is smart politically? That's the Ontario Liberal AG's advice to his federal cousins in the Globe today: get dumb on crime.

OK, maybe that's a tad unfair. I don't like being the sort that shoots the messenger, and Bryant's wider thesis isn't totally without merit. Would have been nice not to have to read it in the newspaper, but whatever. But this quote…

"Being smart on crime is dumb politically if there are no wedges and little substance."

…is more than just a touch infuriating. I think it speaks though to an age old debate, the one of good politics vs. good policy. Rarely are the two the same. And there's no better issue to illustrate the conundrums therein than the crime issue.

Most statistical measurements indicate that crime has been steadily declining over the years. Any survey on the topic though will tell you that people feel less safe today then they did X years ago. Why the dichotomy? Who knows. Theories abound. The media preoccupation with crime, giving every incident heavy play on the local news, is a popular culprit.

Whatever the reason though, the point is people still feel less safe, and they're demanding action. Bryant is saying ignoring that feeling would be perilous politically, and I'm with him so far. Which brings us to the question of what to do.

Here's where he loses me, and with statements like these made me double-check to see whether this fellow is a Liberal or not:

"The typical federal Liberal approach to crime, in a word, is a boomer approach that is stuck in the summer of love."


Speaking of summers of love, I think someone needs to remind Michael we never did decriminalize marijuana and he shouldn't toke while writing policy papers. Because that is a patently false, simplistic and stupid characterization of Liberal criminal justice policy. We've always advocated a balanced approach of tackling root causes AND tough on crime measures that work.

Paying any attention to root causes is a waste of time though, seems to be his contention. Sure, it may work, but that's secondary, it not politically sexy so forget about it. Instead, Bryant advocates a string of "tough on crime" measures that have been tried in the U.S. and have been spectacular failures in actually reducing crime. Doesn't matter, he says:

Mr. Bryant contends such reasoning fails to "embrace the irrefutable logic of incapacitation," the policy of getting criminals off the street and in jail, which the paper describes as "a powerful tool to rebuild communities under siege."


Or, in other words, throw everyone in jail and throw away the key. We're going to need to build bigger jails, aren't we?

Look, I agree that the Harper government has been very effective in PORTRAYING themselves as being tough on crime. They haven't actually done anything effective to actually REDUCE crime, but politics is perception, and they've successfully built the perception.

So, there is a challenge here for the LPC, I agree. We can't ignore the fact that, despite declining crime rates, people are feeling less safe. And we can't ignore the fact Steve Harper is parasitically taking advantage of that fear to portray himself as hard on crime, and the Liberals soft, reality be dammed.

Is the answer though, as Bryant suggests, to abandon all crime policy that is sensible, policy-wise, for ineffective measures that will however make us seem tough on crime and make people feel safer?

Neither is the answer. We've never taken an either/or approach. Abandoning measures aimed at tackling the root causes of crime would be a mistake; whether it's politically sexy or not such measures actually do help reduce crime. We need to make that case better. To acknowledge the political realities though we also need to put more emphasis on the other half of the coin, and come up with some new proposals that show we're serious about being tough on crime. Not, though, by recycling failed American policies a la Harper, but with measures that would actually help reduce crime AND make people feel safer. And fight Harper's politics of perception, show why his "tough" proposals are ineffective.

The politics of fear may be effective Michael. That doesn't mean we should get down in the muck and play that game.

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15 comments:

janfromthebruce said...

It looks like the prov liberal machine wants to distance itself from the sinking federal Liberal party ship - so don't take it personal - all politics is local. They don't want to go down with the mother ship. But if this liberal guy's stupidity isn't obvious among the rank and file, well the federal lib party machine better get into action. All hands on deck!

In_The_Centre said...

Without getting into the meat of his article...this is bad news for the LPC because the optics of this is terrible. It sends a signal to readers that the provincial Liberals are trying to distance themselves from the Federal Liberals. The McGuinty Liberals have endorsed Harper's tough on crime approach (proabably to save their electoral asses) and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were dismayed at the way the LPC voted against the renewing the ant-terror clauses.

It also further adds to a growing perception that the LPC is divided over how to deal with crime.

petroom said...

There's nothing wrong with open debate. Engage Bryant in the press; to show that there is support on both sides of an issue within the Liberal Party defines the Libs as a big tent.

I'm more comfortable with a party that would consider both sides of an issue. I also hate guns and jails by the way.

Dion's leadership style is already showing merit. There is so much open debate out there and it is not acrimoniuous.

I oddly refer to Garth Turner's recent comment on how open Mr. Dion has been to an open caucus.

Mushroom said...

Dalton would not mind having Harper as PM come September-October in order to have the fiscal imbalance message resonate with the Ontario public.

greyburr said...

they haven't actually done anything effective to actually REDUCE crime

Sorry you are wrong!The Tories defeated the Grits and by doing so sidelined a number of entitled thieves.

Olaf said...

Jeff,

I think you're playing a little loose and fast here. Bryant, by my reading, wasn't saying that the Liberal policies on crime are smart, and therefore bad politically, he's saying that simply telling people they're "smart on crime", when there is "little substance" to back up this claim, isn't going to work.

Or, in other words, throw everyone in jail and throw away the key. We're going to need to build bigger jails, aren't we?

Obviously Bryant isn't saying this, and this is the sort of reactionary response that I think he's trying to cautious against. His op-ed later on in the Globe goes a way in clarifying what he means, and this 'lock up and throw away the key' idea certainly isn't it.

Is the answer though, as Bryant suggests, to abandon all crime policy that is sensible, policy-wise, for ineffective measures that will however make us seem tough on crime and make people feel safer?

Again, I really think that you are mischaracterizing what he's trying to say here to a huge degree, and that you should maybe read his policy paper when it comes available before passing judgement.

I also think you should get off the self-righteous 'how dare anyone think we're not perfect' defensive a bit here, and try to look at the advice he's giving a little more closely. I mean, he's a Liberal attorney general, not some hack Tory smear artist; I assume he knows what he's talking about and isn't just trying to denigrate the party. I'd take what he's saying as constructive criticism as opposed to a fantastically unfair attack.

Mark Dowling said...

nothing Bryant loves more than a serial killer or some other offender to scare people with. This is not who Dion should be listening to.

Olaf said...

nothing Bryant loves more than a serial killer or some other offender to scare people with. This is not who Dion should be listening to.

Right, because serial killers aren't inherently frightening to people, they're only scary when Bryant lords them over us.

A BCer in Toronto said...

I'll just say I read it differently Olaf, I just went back to read it again and I still do. And please, self-righteous? I acknowledge a number of times that Bryant's thesis isn't entirely without merit. The federal liberals do need better messaging on crime, and putting some more in the tough on crime side of the ledger is a necessary step. But, Bryant's mis characterizations of past liberal justice policy aside, at the end of the day he seems to be advocating for a Conservative-style approach to crime that I, for one, don't agree with. I'd read the paper, unfortunately he leaked it to the Globe and not me so I'll have to wait.

Gayle said...

For what it is worth, I think the liberals should be proud of their record on fighting crime, and they should take full credit for it. After all, after hitting a high point in 1991, crime fell steadily while the liberals were in power, and, in fact, was at an all time low when Harper won the election.

Although the violent crime rate has stabilized over the past 2-3 years, it is still 25% lower than it was 20 years ago. Robberies have gone up, but robberies with guns have gone down. In fact, I believe gun crime in general has gone down since the liberals strengthened the gun laws in the 1990's.

While looking at the crime rate, one must bear in mind that reporting certain crimes, such as sexual assault and spousal assault has increased over the past 20 years. So, the violent crime rate has probably gone down even more than the stats would suggest.

The liberals should call the conservatives out on this one - for treating Canadians like they are stupid. Why not ask the conservatives how the tough on crime stance will decrease crime (I notice that they are not actually claiming that it will). Why not point out that the liberal crime program not only resulted in a lower crime rate, and safer streets, but they managed to do this by spending less money - while the conservative plan will result in billions of dollars, and no results. Why not point out the reason the liberal crime program was so successful was because it tried to PREVENT crime from happening in the first place, unlike the conservative plan which simply kicks in after someone has been victimized.

If the conservatives try to argue the liberals cannot take credit for the huge reduction in crime during their tenure, then it begs the question of why they were blaming the liberals for their false assertion crime is out of control.

Anyway, that is what I would do, if I were them. Not that anyone is asking me...

The Rat said...

"Most statistical measurements indicate that crime has been steadily declining over the years. Any survey on the topic though will tell you that people feel less safe today then they did X years ago. Why the dichotomy?"

The problem with stats is they are dependent on the data. Here's some data. In the last 6 days my apartment building has had three break-ins. We live in a nice middle-class suburb with a lot of high value condos. We reported all three break-ins to the RCMP. That's rare. We have had numerous break-ins in the last two years and most went unreported because the value of goods stolen was less than the insurance deductible, and the police wouldn't attend, they only provide a file number for insurance purposes. So, no insurance, no point in reporting it.

We have begun to report more to try to get a response form the local RCMP, and in talks with them they have suggested we spend about $10,000 on video surveillance. We won't, not because it's not a good idea, but because it doesn't help us. We need a deterrent, and video doesn't deter, it just allows us to find the culprit afterwards. Which brings us to the real problem with Liberal policy: We have caught two of our burglars in the past year and neither has served a day of jail time. Multiple burglaries, and many, many, more they have committed without being caught because the RCMP won't investigate, and you wonder why we want tougher sentences?

Frankly, "Smart" policy is just smug Liberal crap where you think you know better than us mere mortals. Live like a regular guy, experience the incessant petty crime, and then tell me that Liberal policy is "Smart".

Gayle said...

"We won't, not because it's not a good idea, but because it doesn't help us. We need a deterrent, and video doesn't deter, it just allows us to find the culprit afterwards."

First - there are many, many studies that say punishment does not deter. There is virtually no evidence that says otherwise. I could quote the studies, but it is easier to point to some hard evidence - Texas, where the death penalty exists, and people are executed at an alarming rate, and yet for some reason people still kill each other.

I do not know if you prefer a "solution" that punishes after the fact, but personally I prefer the ones that stop it in the first place.

Second - if you think this phenomenon of not reporting crimes started with you, you are completely wrong. This is not new - people have not reported crimes for years and years (and years and years). It is an unfortunate fact of life. I would guess that more people are reporting now than they were 20 years ago - and yet we still have a lower crime rate.

Third - I work with a number of young offenders, and I assure you video does deter. They do not want to get caught so they avoid things like video, alarm systmens and dogs. Take the RCMP's advice and install video.

The Rat said...

"I would guess that more people are reporting now than they were 20 years ago - and yet we still have a lower crime rate."

And I would guess your wrong. Not much more to say there. As for deterrence, jail time might not be a deterrent, I can't vouch for the intelligence of your average drug-addled burglar or bored 16-year-old. And the fear the teenager has is more likely of parental punishment when caught, I think. Funny that. Still, we'd rather invest $10,000 into a better gate system and tougher locks. Those will prevent and deter. But isn't it strange that the offered responses are pretty much "blame the victim", I should spend to protect myself? And finally, as a Neanderthal conservative, I have two further thoughts on deterrence:

1) With the lax sentences today, I absolutely agree that jail time is no deterrent.

2) Someone in jail isn't likely to be breaking into my car. Again. And Again. And Again. . .

Gayle said...

People certainly report sexual assaults and spousal assaults more now than 20 years ago. The school yard fight, the bully stealing halloween candy or a bus pass are now resulting in charges of assault and robbery. I know that was not the case when I was a kid.

Canada does not have lax sentences - they are only "lax" in comparison to the US.

It is very expensive to put someone in jail. You may think it is worth 40,000.00 year to protect your car from being stolen by one individual, but frankly I do not. Not to mention the fact that just because one guy is in jail does not mean someone else is not still going to to steal your car.

Yes it is unfair you have to pay for video - it is also unfair you have to pay for locks, and insurance, and windows and doors. All of this is still cheaper than putting someone in jail.

I would love to live in a world without crime - but that just is not going to happen so we all have to be a little realistic.

The biggest and most effective deterrent is the fear of being caught - hence the advice about the video surveillance.

Lest you think I am unkind, I do sympathize with you on the break and enters. I have been victimized by crime myself and know it is difficult - especially break and enters because of the invasion of privacy issues. I know you do not agree with my point of view, but I hope you know that I am basing my opinion on my own experience as well as my desire to live in a safe community.

The Rat said...

"Yes it is unfair you have to pay for video - it is also unfair you have to pay for locks, and insurance, and windows and doors. All of this is still cheaper than putting someone in jail.

I don't agree with your argument, but it's nice you sympatize, at least. If everything were done just by the "It's cheaper to . . ." argument, well, there are a lot of things we could cut costs on. And to say it's better for me to pay for insurance, and for me to pay for surveillance, and for me to pay for locks, rather than have society pay for jails is a very interesting thing for a liberal to say. Sure, jails are expensive, but as a society we sometimes have to share costs, like medicare, even though it would be eminently cheaper to say "too bad, pay for it yourself". The cost of protecting citizens is one of those shared costs.

The problem is that Liberals are the ideologues on this issue, talking of "root causes" and "prevention". At some point we have to have the third pillar of punishment as a deterrence and to remove those who do not value our society's little niceties..