Tom Flanagan crowed after the 2006 election that there are certain issues that just favour the Conservatives. The example he gave was the economy. No matter how successful the Liberals were in balancing the books and creating jobs, Conservative research suggested that when it came to economics people trusted the Conservatives more than they did the Liberals. It does not much of leap to suggest the same is true for crime. After all, to presume that the public has a working knowledge of each party's justice policies is giving the public way too much credit; the public trades in stereotypes and they are always going to believe that Conservatives are tougher on crime. This is especially so now. The Conservatives are in power and for this reason alone what they say with regard to crime garners headlines. By contrast, past Liberal support for some those Conservative tough on crime measures has drawn almost no attention at all. Of course, even if the Liberals were able to convince Canadians did support this or that Conservative measure, the Conservatives have a fail safe. They have claimed and will continue to claim that the Liberals had ability to introduce such policies when they were in power and failed to do so. No one likes a Johnny come lately.
So if the Liberals can not lessen the lessen the popularity of Conservative tough on crime agenda by towing the Conservative line, just what can they do? Well, they can try put the subject in different light. And at first blush it appears that have tried to do just that. The Liberals have reminded the public that "US style mega- prisons" come at a cost and questioned just how Canadian such policies truly are. "Canadians know that spending billions of dollars on US-style mega-prisons to lock up young people will only produce more hardened criminals. It’s a failed American crime policy, and it just doesn’t work."
The problem with such an approach is this. In words of great voting behavior researcher Philip Converse, the vast majority of voters show a lack of “constraint”: That is, they hold incompatible beliefs. Many voters simply do not recognize that tough on crime measures necessitate the building of "mega-prisons". If asked, they will say that they support the former but disagree with the later.
The Liberals know this. Indeed, Liberal marijuana policy, for example, is premised on there being such wide cognitive dissonance. On the one hand the Liberals have long maintained that Canadians should not be saddled with a criminal record for consuming something that is, after all, less harmful than alcohol. It is this light that Chrétien famously joked about having a joint in one hand and the money to pay for the fine of having it in the other. “I will have my money for my fine and a joint in my other hand.” On the other hand, just as they long downplayed the affects of smoking marijuana they have long stressed the importance of stiff penalties for trafficking. Both positions are wildly popular with the public, but run the two positions together and it is as if Chrétien said this instead. “I will have my money for my fine and a joint in my other hand. Having paid my fine I would hope the cops find the person who sold it to me in put him in jail for a very long time.” If the act of consumption is not deemed overly ruinous then the whole punitive rationale for trafficking comes crashing down. Add to mix an acknowledgment on behalf of the Liberal party that marijuana can serve a medical purpose and you have a conceptual train wreck as a policy.
Liberal supporters should take two things from this. One just because it Ignatieff is decrying "mega-prisons" now does not mean the party has seen the light. When it comes to crime, the party seems to have no qualms speaking out of both sides of its mouth. Two, however popular such denunciations of "mega prisons" might be it is not likely such talk will do anything to arrest the popularity of the Conservatives tough on crime agenda.
No, the only way the Liberals are going to be able to arrest the popularity of Conservative's get tough on crime agenda is by putting a legal elephant right in the middle of the room. Promising to legalize either marijuana or prostitution would do the trick. Hot topics draw in an ordinate amount of attention generally and starve any related issues of any oxygen altogether.
The question then becomes would either policy would pay off politically. With regard to the later I just do not know. However, with regard to the former I am convinced it would be a political winner for the Liberals.
Polls consistently show that the Canadian public supports the legalization of marijuana by a wide margin. So the public is receptive to the idea already. More importantly, the arguments for legalizing marijuana are far more robust than the arguments for increasing the penalties for trafficking. Indeed, the later are often so bad as to have earned the name "reefer madness". As with SSM, the advantage of such an issue lies not with the popularity of such a proposal per say as the cost to the Conservatives of having their talking points savaged by the media for months on end. It is the process not the polls that really matter. I do not care what the issue is if your talking points been savaged by the media and informed public over a long period of time, you are going to hurt on the polls. The more prominent or controversial the issue the worse it gets.