OTTAWA — Opposition Members of Parliament, including Liberals who have worked on justice issues, say they would plunge the country into another federal election before agreeing to a slate of Conservative proposals that would see convicted criminals treated more harshly. (Contact your MP and tell them to vote down any anti-drug laws!) The measures, including tougher penalties for young offenders and the reduced use of conditional sentences that allow criminals to serve their time at home, are likely to be among the first tests of Liberal willingness to challenge Stephen Harper’s new minority government.
The Conservatives are not backing down from threats to make the measures matters of confidence. “I don’t think there has been any change in our position around that,” Kory Teneycke, spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told The Globe and Mail. “We are prepared to make them [justice issues]confidence matters if necessary.”
During the last session of Parliament, the Conservatives passed a law that removed judges’ ability to hand down conditional sentences for a range of serious violent crimes. As it was introduced, the legislation also stipulated incarceration for many less-serious property crimes. But opposition members on the House of Commons justice committee stripped non-violent offenses from the list, saying they should be eligible for conditional sentences.
Mr. Harper made it clear during the election campaign that he would try again to require people who commit such crimes to serve time in jail – and he would tolerate no revisions by the opposition. He also said he would allow stiffer sentences, including the possibility of life in prison, for criminals as young as 14 – a measure roundly opposed in Quebec even though provinces could set the age at 16 within their own jurisdictions.
After the election, Mr. Teneckye reiterated the Conservative resolve to move the justice provisions through Parliament. “If the other parties want to go into an election on criminal-justice issues, I think we are prepared to call their bluff on that,” he said in an interview.
It is unclear just when the crime bills will be introduced in the House of Commons. But the opposition has already indicated its willingness to vote against them, even if it means a return trip to the polls. “If the government decides to make a confidence matter on this bill, it’s going to be its own responsibility.” said Réal Ménard, the Bloc Québécois justice critic. “We have a platform, we have a historical view on this matter and we are not going to change our view.”
Joe Comartin, the NDP justice critic, said there are some crime proposals outlined by the Conservatives that his party supports. But “bringing back the issue of conditional sentences, I think is generally a non-starter,” Mr. Comartin said. “If the Prime Minister is prepared to put the country through another election over conditional sentences for non-violent crimes, let him go ahead and try it. It’s a useless threat.”
In the end, however, it depends on whether the Liberals sit on their hands – as they did through repeated confidence votes during the last session of Parliament. Many Liberal MPs emerged from a recent caucus meeting to say abstaining is no longer an option.
Three Liberal members of the Commons justice committee are among the most adamant that the party will not stand by as the Conservative measures roll through the House. Brian Murphy, a Liberal from New Brunswick, said it would be wrong to oppose bills that have not yet been seen by Parliament and they could be crafted in a way that the Liberals support. But “I would say very clearly that abstaining as we did was not helpful in this election for me,” he said. “And I would be very reluctant – given that I ran on the idea of being a fighter, being very strident, and having 16 years of always standing up for people – I would be very reluctant to abstain.”
Larry Bagnell, a Liberal MP from the Yukon, said the question for both his party and the Conservative government will be whether these issues are serious enough to fight another election over. “I can say that we will be making a strong case in our caucus against this bill, for sure,” Mr. Bagnell said.
Derek Lee, a Toronto-area Liberal, said “there is no way I am going to sit on my hands. There is no way that these guys are going to get their way.” The Conservative plan is “an ignorant, uninformed vision” of the justice system and how it works, said Mr. Lee, adding that harsher penalties don’t work because criminals don’t know the precise sentences for the crimes they commit. “I couldn’t allow myself to vote in favour of such ill-advised legislation, whether they call it confidence or not.”
– Article from Globe & Mail, November 5th 2008