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Chris Hall: The every-backbencher-with-a-crime-bill week

Routine politics? Or an attempt to skirt a charter review by government lawyers?

Posted: Apr 26, 2013 5:21 AM ET

Last Updated: Apr 26, 2013 5:20 AM ET


Chris Hall

This is the eighth annual "Victims of Crime Awareness Week'' in Canada.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson made sure he reminded everyone of that Thursday when he threw the government's weight behind yet another Conservative MP's bill to toughen the Criminal Code.

Nicholson endorsed a bill fronted by backbencher James Bezan that would require anyone convicted of the abduction, sexual assault and murder of a person to serve up to 40 years (at the trial judge's discretion) before being eligible for parole.

"Our government supports this bill,'' Nicholson told a news conference on Parliament Hill. "It's consistent with our plan for safe streets and communities, holding violent criminals accountable, enhancing the rights of victims and increasing the efficiency of our justice system.''

It's hardly news to anyone that the Conservatives place great emphasis on their law and order agenda. Responding to crime has consumed as much of this government's time in office as economic issues.

''Getting tough on crime'' rivals ''keeping taxes low'' as the Stephen Harper government's favourite refrain.

But there is one significant difference between the two priorities.

When it comes to crime, the government is more than happy to use its own backbench MPs to propose legislation that normally would be introduced by the appropriate cabinet minister.

The question is why.

A favourite wedge

Since taking power, the Conservatives have followed through on a wide range of campaign commitments to address violent crime, and to rebalance the scales of justice in favour of victims.

The list of changes is long: new mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, eliminating house arrest for violent crimes, getting rid of the faint-hope clause that allowed prisoners serving life sentences to apply for early parole, and introducing legislation to require offenders to pay a victim surcharge, to name only a few.

But it is not just bedrock principles driving that agenda. There's a strong dose of politics at play, too.

Conservatives have spun their law and order agenda as an issue that clearly separates them from all of their political opponents. Conservatives are tough on crime, voters are told. While the Liberals and New Democrats, by implication, are not.

Crime, or the fear of crime, is a hot-button topic in many suburban ridings across Canada. And the Conservatives, well, they push the button as often as they can.

What's more, their commitment is unshakable.

They've dismissed criticism from many leading criminologists, ignored evidence from other countries that putting more people in jail for longer periods of time does little, if anything, to reduce violent crime.

They've also disputed studies that showed crime rates began to fall before they took power, or that spending to implement the law and order agenda is out of proportion to the problem.

The frontmen

That's not to say the Conservatives are wrong to pursue this course of action. They've been elected three times now on this agenda.

Voters, especially those in suburban ridings, are on their side when it comes to the two clearly stated priorities.

But what separates crime from the economy and virtually every other Conservative agenda item is the use of backbench MPs to front elements of the plan.

Bezan's parole bill is just one initiative the government has said it supports — without formally sponsoring the legislation itself.

Here, too, the list is significant.

The legislation to scrap the gun registry was first proposed by backbench MP Candice Bergen.

Conservative MP Blake Richards won an endorsement for his bill increasing the sentence of anyone wearing a mask in a riot. So did bills implementing tougher penalties for vandalizing war memorials.

At the moment, Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney is trying to amend a bill by yet another backbencher, Devinder Shory.

If accepted, the bill would allow Kenney's department to strip Canadian citizenship from any dual nationals convicted of terrorism activities.

Skirting charter review

On Thursday, Liberal MP Bob Rae rose in the Commons to complain to the Speaker that Kenney's move changed the original intent of Shory's bill, and subordinated his intentions to the government's.

NDP House leader Nathan Cullen went further.

He suggested the government is misusing private member's bills because they aren't subject to the same kind of review by the Justice Department as measures brought by the government.

"One important aspect that applies to government legislation is that the minister of justice is obligated … to ensure compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," he said.

"Private member's business does not have to go through a similar test.''

Abusing the rules of the House. Misusing private member's business. Taking advantage of their majority position. Government House leader Peter Van Loan called these complaints "technicalities.''

His side is more concerned with protecting Canadians, Van Loan said, and equipping authorities with the tools they need to combat crime and terrorism.

Of course, if the government is using its backbenchers to skirt a charter review then it might just find itself back in court in the years ahead trying to defend these new crime laws from being thrown out. That could end up being a long list, too.

About The Author

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. Hall began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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