Rezori | Why politics could get in the way of justice reform

Peter MacKay may have good intentions for respecting the concerns of victims of crime, Azzo Rezori writes, but a key obstacle will be politics as usual.

Victims of crime may finally be getting better treatment

Justice Minister Peter MacKay attended a meeting in St. John's last week on better addressing the needs of victims of crime. (CBC)

I'm re-watching the footage we shot of federal justice minister Peter MacKay arriving this past Monday at the Delta Hotel in St. John's for one of his cross-country, round-table discussions on the Harper government's proposed bill of rights for victims.

Seven women and two men representing local interest groups and government agencies are already sitting at the horse-shoe table arrangement, chatting, reading, making notes.

MacKay's handler comes through the door and signals to the media that the minister is on his way.

MacKay enters with a breezy, business-like stride, heads straight for the people sitting at the horseshoe and shakes each and everyone's hand.

If I was his granny, I would gush at this moment. He cuts such a dapper figure, this boyish almost 48-year-old with his Modigliani face. Even his grey suit can't hide how slim and fit he is. His elegantly patterned blue-and-white tie completes him perfectly.

In his introductory remarks he talks effortlessly and candidly about what he's heard on his fact-finding tour so far - that when it comes to dealing with victims of crime, the Canadian justice system could do a lot better.

At this point I'm willing to forgive him even his helicopter escapade. Who hasn't at least once in their life lost sight of good judgment? Isn't making mistakes part of human condition and one of its charms?

Snapping out of it

I remember snapping out of the spell when he started listing all the money the Harper government has already spent on improving the broken system. All right, I reminded myself, it's back to politics.

And it's politics that threatens to undermine what MacKay is hoping to accomplish.

The most common criticism has been that this proposed bill on victims' rights is nothing but a sideshow to the Harper government's darker obsession with getting tough on crime.

Supporters might argue that there are two sides to the coin of crime, the offender and the victim, and this is an honest attempt by the government to give both sides equal treatment. To which the critics might respond that actions speak louder than words and so far the actions coming from Ottawa have focused alarmingly more on offenders than on victims.

As a result, there have been a lot of questions about the true nature of the Harper government's policies. What really drives its anti-crime agenda? A commitment to what? To justice? To morality? Aren't the two supposed to be the same?

Morality vs. justice

According to Jonathan Heidt and June Graham, two researchers from the University of Virginia, they're not. The two recently published a paper called When Morality Opposes Justice.

They basically argue that conservative and liberal views of justice don't mix. From the conservative point of view, modern justice has too little moral substance; from the liberal point of view, that's a good thing because some moral substance is unwelcome baggage.

In politics, the standard practice is to focus on differences. After all, the whole point of political combat is to prove the other side wrong.

But where's the difference in this case? Looking after victims fits as neatly into the conservative worldview as it fits into the liberal one. There are no formal restrictions on compassion on either side that I know of.

So as I watch Peter MacKay smoothly fielding questions from reporters, I'm thinking that for once the politics are irrelevant.

Not everybody at Monday's round-table discussion may approve of the Harper government's much-politicized crackdown on offenders.

But, from what I could tell, nobody disagreed with the argument that victims of crimes deserve better treatment from the justice system than they've been getting up to now.

And that's a pretty good start.