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Harper Crime Agenda = Meaner Canada

May 29, 2011

by Trish Hennessy

One troublesome prospect of a Harper majority government is the implementation of its ‘tough on criminals’ legislation, expected within its first 100 days.

In this blog, Alex Himelfarb shows us what’s wrong with the Conservative ‘tough on crime’ agenda that’s infiltrating Canada and sets out a progressive counterpoint.

The progressive frame, in Himelfarb’s words: “this turn to “tough on criminals”  makes Canada a meaner – not safer – place.”

Himelfarb encourages Canadians to get engaged in the crime debate, warning: “[I]n the end, in the name of safety, we are less safe.  In the name of democracy, we are less free.  And in our refusal to have the debate, to move beyond our prejudices, our fears, our anger, we make Canada a meaner and smaller place.”

  1. Tonya Henry permalink
    May 29, 2011 12:50 pm

    It has been proven over and over that our current prison system is a band-aid solution and that the climate of prison iteself does nothing to prevent recidivism and outright violence. Stats show that violence has actually been decreasing for the past few years but the conservatives appear bent and determined to play on our public’s fear of crime by insisting on building bigger prisions and increasing the size of our police forces to reduce crime.
    Could money not be better spent by improving services that tackle the systemic issues that lead people into crime? eg: poverty, family breakdown, lack of re-integration programming, housing, social assistance, lack of youth programming…
    Once again the conservative government has proven that it lacks both the insight and foresight into building a safer and sustainable Canada. Am wondering what’s next? Am I going to ‘do time’ for commenting on this post?

  2. Andrew permalink
    May 29, 2011 6:43 pm

    The correctional system should be exactly that: To correct – from its own syntax – or to rehabilitate inmates.

    The problem with right-wing ideology is its attempt to ‘tar and feather’ societal issues.

    Let’s face it, crime is a complex problem; it should not be met with a simple solution of incarceration.

    Conservatives seem to try to create perceptions that Canada’s crime rate is spiraling into crisis, when, in fact, the opposite is true.

    Certainly there are times that this sort of messaging can spark the interest of voters, but when you think about it, it all seems silly.

    I mean, let’s be real for a moment: Can you really erase crime by blaming your problems on a criminal underclass that is incarcerated and forgotten?

    No way.

    You can only address and solve this sort of thing if you address and solve it at its root.

    Let’s affirm a few things: we know that we are good people; we know that we want to live in a decent society; and we know that to live in a society where we simply hope, without action, that crime or other ills will just go away is unrealistic.

    The disconnect, of course, is that despite what we know, we seem to live in a country where we are bombarded with “solutions” that ought to magically cure all that ails us.

    The forthcoming “mean” federal invective will play to the ignorance of Canadians – an ignorance that enables Canadians to bury their heads with a casino-like mentality as though they were hoping by chance that an issue will solve itself or simply, go away.

    Stephen Harper’s Conservative government’s absence of analyzing and identifying, presenting and costing measurable ideas or solutions as a reduction or remedy, lead it to – through Harper’s acolyte Rob Nicholson – yearn to beef up criminal sentences and enforcement, regardless of financial cost.

    The financial and social cost of Harper’s crime agenda is, without evidence, no different than using a machine gun to kill a butterfly.

  3. Geordie McRuer permalink
    June 7, 2011 7:57 am

    I enjoyed this article very much. I’ll keep an eye on this guy’s blog in the future; he seems like a thoughtful dude.

    That said, I disagree that, with regards to framing, this article offers much. Harper’s crime agenda = meaner Canada, but meaner to whom? The answer (criminals) seems to undermine the frame.

    People who are inclined to agree with Harper’s take on justice policy know that the way to deal with people who are mean to others is to be mean back. That’s exactly what this bill is for and that’s exactly what it accomplishes. But I think that pointing out this fact alone is insufficient to sway the center.

    The nuance that is left out of the phrase “Harper’s crime agenda = meaner Canada” is the fact that the bill will not only make Canada a meaner place, but it also does nothing to reduce crime, and, in fact, will likely lead to increased crime over the longer term.

    I think that one of the ways to create strong frames is to underline the VALUE that is driving a policy, especially when that value is dramatically different than the values held by the “average” member of the public. The value driving the Omnibus Crime Bill is punishment. Conservatives value punishment more than they value safety, community and civil liberties.

    One possible frame I would suggest we use when talking about this issue is that the Harper crime agenda represents “punishment for punishment’s sake.” This emphasizes the fact that it will fail to reduce crime. If one wanted to emphasize further the fact that it will also cost an enormous amount, one could talk about “spending billions of dollars on punishment for punishment’s sake.” This frame would succeed if, as I suspect, most Canadians do not value punishment for punishment’s sake. I don’t think that we live in a revenge society. I don’t think that any of us would want a Stephen Seagal character as our Prime Minister. Unfortunately, that’s kind of what we have.

    Another frame, that I think can be used more broadly to describe the Conservative aversion to evidence based policy (think about their take on crime, safe injection sites, economic policy, as well as others), relies on Lakoff’s notion that people conceive of government in terms of the family. Harper is giving Canada “because-I-say-so government.” Harper’s unwillingness to be questioned by anyone (uppity civil servants getting fired, limiting the press to 4 questions a day, etc.) is taken directly from the American conservative playbook, as is the disregard for policy evidence. This is Harper playing strict father, and we all know it’s wrong. “Because-I-say-so governance” articulates this in a phrase that everyone has heard and that everyone knows is invalid.


    • June 7, 2011 9:36 am

      Thanks for your very thoughtful comment, Geordie. What I appreciated about Alex’s blog on crime was the identification of the emotion underlying the crime agenda: that it would result in a meaner Canada. That emotion connects the value of being a caring society, a very progressive value.

      • Geordie McRuer permalink
        June 8, 2011 6:15 pm

        The problem with this is that people who have the strict-father model accessible can easily transfer “meanness” into “tough love.” By such people’s logic, one can correct someone’s deviance by being mean to them. This is unpleasant in the short term, but in the longer term it is kind because being mean allows the criminal to turn his/her life around – a kind thing to do.

        I think that this discussion raises a number of important points:

        1) frames can, and necessarily must be targeted at different people. A frame that energizes committed progressives, may not turn the heads of the so-called “centrists” and vice versa. I would argue that the “meaner Canada” frame would play well to committed progressives, but maybe not so well to those on the fence. One of the major problems for the left is that (especially the Liberals) talk to the left and design policy for the center. The right does the complete opposite.

        2) In discussions like these, it would be helpful to create some criteria along witch to judge a given frame. Off the top of my head, two dimensions that I would propose are a) cognitive simplicity (which I suspect is greatly increased by using metaphorical rather than literal speech) b) the percentage of people in the target population who share the value highlighted (if it’s a combative frame, like “meaner Canada”, then you want the percentage to be small but if it’s a frame designed to attract support, like “respect for taxpayers”, you want that number to be high).

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