Trotting out the bogeyman

Russell Wangersky
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"I don't know if the statistics demonstrate that crime is down ... I'm focused on danger."

That's federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, speaking to the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs about the Conservatives' "tough on crime" legislation.

If nothing else, the next few years are going to have more than their fair share of unintentional hilarity - because unless I completely misunderstood that particular quote, Toews has just confirmed what opponents of the new crime legislation have been saying all along.

And that's that the legislation has nothing to do with crime, and everything to do with marketing.

You could parse it a little differently, and still get the gist: "I don't care about the facts: I'm focused on the fear."

It's a wonderfully knee-jerk kind of way to deal with the public, but you have to wonder what kind of end result it will bring.

And it's not only in crime bills. Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried a bit of it himself this past week: despite plenty of research that shows Canada's social programs aren't in the kind of jeopardy that those of our European neighbours are, Harper came up with the sudden need to bring Old Age Security spending "under control" to save our entire social safety net.

Once again, forget the facts and spread the fear. (Of course, it helps to build the fear yourself. Who knew our entire social care system was in danger before Harper trotted out the need to save it from itself?)

But back to crime. Rewind a little further, back to when Vic Toews actually did realize that statistics demonstrated that crime rates were down to levels last seen in the early '70s. (He must have since forgotten about those statistics, because he clearly doesn't know about them anymore.) He said that the Tory crime bill was to help address the increase in unreported crimes.

"We see this continuing trend of more and more crimes going unreported, and that ... I believe is an indication of a lack of confidence in the justice system," Toews told CTV in September 2010.

"And that is why our government is taking the measures that we are taking." All right. To get this straight, then: it's the increase in unreported crime (that's a great thing to try and measure in any form - it's big, it's bad, it's ... unreported, hence statistically, well, void) and the increase in ... wait for it ... danger.

Yep, I've noticed a tremendous rise in danger. Big pool of it just the other day outside the office - I had to cower in my car for hours.

All in all, it makes about as much sense as having the direction our crime legislation goes in being set by victims of crime.

That may sound more than a little heartless, but bringing victims of crime in as drivers of the debate is a little like the old media trick of going to a town where the major employer is shutting down and asking people how they feel about it. Just how exactly do you think they are going to feel?

And yes, I was once sent on one of those chases by a major Canadian media outlet - I was asked to find a trawler crewmember from Trepassey, preferably married to a Trepassey plant worker, to ask them how they felt about the shutdown of the FPI deepwater operation there. It was good money, but in the end, I turned the job down. You knew what the answers would be before you even asked the questions. ("So, you lost both hands in a sawmill ... how do you feel about those darned saws?")

With all due respect, letting the victims of crime dictate the punishment for criminals - or trotting them out to defend the revenge-based need for heavier sentences - makes no more sense than letting people convicted of crimes set their own punishments.

Why? Because both are directly involved.

Would we let businesses set their own tax rates? (Well, maybe that's a bad example, because it sometimes looks as though they already do.) Would you allow oil companies to do environmental reviews of their own projects? Would we empanel a group of people in this province with thousands of dollars of Highway Traffic Act tickets and let them decide whose tickets should be written off? You get the point.

The problem is that we have lots of numbers about crime rates in this country. We also have lots and lots of people who deal with crime, and who try to balance deterrence with punishment, recidivism with rehabilitation. And essentially, we're telling all those people, with all their skills and experience and knowledge, that what really matters is not the fact, but the fiction.

Instead, we're going to legislate based on the monster under the bed. We haven't seen it, we don't know where it is, but it's dangerous.

Billions of dollars for dust- bunnies and a lost sock or two.

Next time, why don't we pick a government that deals with real issues, instead of cashing in crassly and politically on our worst fears?

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Senate Committee on Legal, Conservatives, Tory CTV FPI The Telegram

Geographic location: Canada, Trepassey

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Recent comments

  • Lane
    February 06, 2012 - 17:42

    Like many soft-on-crime advocates, Wangersky uses the phony argument that judges should be given more latitude to determine what sentences are appropriate. Following this argument to its logical conclusion, I assume Wangersky and his ilk are just as opposed to maximum sentences as they are to minimum sentences. If not, then their argument is dishonest. In my view, the only people who should determine what sentences are appropriate for particular crimes are voters. And when a party is elected to government after campaigning on a platform that clearly commits to tougher sentences for certain crimes, then that government should follow through and implement its platform despite anything the nattering nabobs of negativity in the media have to say.

  • Carl
    February 06, 2012 - 17:25

    Wangersky is ignoring logic and facts, and spouting purely partisan/ideological rhetoric - exactly what he accuses the Conservatives of doing. Whether or not the crime rate is decreasing is nothing but a red herring. The question to be answered by parliament is this: How should we handle each serious criminal? Is Wangersky saying that if there are fewer murderers, pedophiles, rapists and drug traffickers then we should treat each of them more lightly? That's just absurd. Wangersky also states as fact that any move toward heavier sentences is "revenge-based." But actually, in some cases a heavier sentence is logic-based and public safety-based. A criminal cannot repeat his or her crimes while behind bars.

  • ed power
    February 05, 2012 - 17:16

    Ms Bainbridge, in totally missing the point of the column, and my comments, demonstrates a selective memory of recent history. She appears to be unaware of the fact that Saddam Hussein had ties to the US government that dated back to his participation in the attempted CIA backed coup against Gen. Qasim in 1959. Upon his return from Egypt in 1963 after the Baath Party took power, Saddam's rose through the party hierarchy until he deposed Pres al-Bakr in 1979. In 1980, with the support of the US, Iraq invaded Iran, and for the next ten years the US supplied weapons, intelligence, classified satellite photos of Iranian defences and, through Kuwait an Saudi Arabia, billions of dollars to finance his war. It was during this period that the now infamous photo of Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam was taken during a meeting in Baghdad at around the same time as Saddam was using poison gas attacks on Kurdish citizens in the north. In 1991, after receiving mixed messages from US officials, Saddam invaded Kuwait over a dispute concerning war debts and a shared oil field. From this point on Saddam became "an evil dictator" in the words of Bush the elder, and an "evil doer" in the words of Bush the younger. That is a brief summary of the past 50 years of US/Iraqi relations. As for Ms Bainbridge's assertion "that Geo Bush, the younger, made their lives safer, by getting rid of Saddam", the facts speak for themselves. In the 1970s, Iraq had the highest standard of living in the Arab world, the highest literacy levels and the highest life expectancy. In 2003, after two wars - with Iran and the US - a decade of US imposed economic sanctions and constant attacks by US and NATO aircraft, Iraq had been reduced to third world status. Still, Iraq made for a convenient post 9/11 boogeyman. The fact that it sits atop the largest untapped oil reserves in the world was...coincidental. Ironically, after the devastating air attacks of Desert Storm in 1991, Saddam was able to get electrical power restored to Baghdad in a few months while the US, after nine years, still hasn't been able to fully restore the electrical grid that they destroyed. They do, however, have the lights on at the Oil Ministry. I suggest that Ms Bainbridge conduct a little research into this topic before she makes any further comments. It would seem from her comments, that the "perception is reality" message developed by the Republican Party and Fox News, and now adopted by our own Conservative Party and Sun News, is an effective one. We can expect more of the same as the Conservatives get better at it. Oh, Brave New world....

    • Molly Bainbridge
      February 06, 2012 - 16:13

      Mr. Power, I wasn't necessarily asddressing all the points inh your column; I was merely pointing our the atrocities Saddam committed on his own people. Whatever the relationship between Sadam and the USA (and indeed the rest of the world) in the past does not detract from MY premis that Hussien was 'a weapon of mass destruction' once he got into power. Unfortunately, the USA, great as we are, do not YET have any powers that would enable us to see 'the end from the beginning'. A simple analogy would be; A person marriers a sweet and thoughtful mate and they love each other 'till seath etc...' Unfortunately, according to the divorce rate, one or both of them become unasuitable and/or unlovable. On a much more disasterous scale it could apply to the Sadam case. History should have told you that, before WW2, Neville Chamberlain went to Germany to 'kiss up to Hitler' and came back to Englans reassuring the world thzat Hitledr was a 'good guy'; and meant the world no harm. Hopefully. you DO know how Hitler fooled Mr. Chamberlain and the world? Thank God for Winston Churchill! Thank God for George W Bush

  • Molly Bainbridge
    February 05, 2012 - 13:52

    Saddam Hussien, himself, was a 'weapon of mass desatruction'. Are you forgetting, or did you ever know, about the death and destruction caused by and ordered by this monster? Maybe the killing of his own ppl was not dramatic enough for the media to jump all over it,but I would bet that the families involved gave thanks to whatever God they believed in, that Geo Bush, the younger, by getting rid of Saddam, made their lives safer. Don't be so quick to pass judgement on things that you are obviously not 'educated' about.

  • W Bagg
    February 05, 2012 - 10:41

    increase in unreported crimes, is that like sightings of the invisible man

  • ed power
    February 04, 2012 - 19:53

    It seems that our "New Conservative Government" has taken a page from the Republican Party south of the border, or George Orwell, or possibly both. It reminds me of the infamous comment made by a Neocon thinker - which one escapes me right now - during the disinformation campaign being waged in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. When an observer pointed out that the US had no evidence of Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction, nuclear weapons program or support to Al Qaida, the observer was chastised for living in the "old reality", that the Bush Administation was creating "new realities" and were doing such an effective job that when people had "adjusted to the new reality" it was already too late as the administration had "created another new "one. To Orwell's "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength" we can now add Harper's "No Crime is Real Crime, and "Non-Existent Crime is Unreported Crime". The beauty of it is, we can still use "Ignorance is Strength".

  • Hilda
    February 04, 2012 - 09:39

    Excellent article. There's FAR too much spin these days. (And not just in government.)