Friday, October 22, 2010

Which Way to Justice in Manitoba?

Over the coming election year, provincial politicians and party leaders will, undoubtedly, make the required pilgrimage to Manitoba’s second largest city – Brandon – many, many times over. (Just ask Curtis Brown or James O’Connor about these trips. The Brandon Sun newsroom is always giddy the night before. It’s like Christmas in July!)

As politicians pass highway #5 and approach Brandon, a sign emerges telling passing motorists which direction brings them to Justice and which direction brings them to Chater.

How interesting. Two roads diverge outside Spruce Woods; one leading to Justice, the other leading to Chater. Justice is clearly the road most travelled by politicians, but why does this path not necessarily lead its followers to the promised land?

Municipalities across Manitoba are days away from Election Day. In Winnipeg, public polls, debates, and election commitments appear to continually underscore the omnipresence of crime and public safety as a leading election issue.

As politicians vie for votes, each of them hope their rhetoric, policies, and spending priorities resonate with those voters for whom crime and public safety are top of mind issues.

Can focusing one’s campaign on justice, however, lead them to victory? What level of crime is required before voters decidedly elect a government based on their justice platform?

During the 2007 provincial election campaign, Hugh McFadyen and the provincial Tories bet the farm on justice.

McFadyen made justice a leading campaign issue. Throughout the campaign, he promised hundreds of new “crime fighters”, a new jail, and harsher laws and penalties. He even played a starring role in at least one or two of his party’s crime ads which ran in high rotation throughout the election.

Then, in the middle of the campaign, two individuals, one of whom was impaired, wanted on outstanding arrest warrants, and under various court orders, stole a vehicle, ran a stop sign and killed a single mother of three children. She was on her way to work at 4:30 in the morning. She was killed the day before Mother’s Day.

It was an incredibly high profile crime, it occurred in the middle of an election campaign, and it tore at the heart strings of many Manitobans. And for media, of course, crime is the crack cocaine of news. A quick review of the Free Press during the campaign indicates that crime, in addition to the one mentioned above, dominated its front page coverage. CTV, of course, dined (and continues to dine) on crime almost every evening.

Most significantly, however, from a campaign strategy point of view, this tragic crime highlighted a direct government failure in managing Winnipeg’s auto theft problem. Furthermore, it corroborated the extremely rare repercussions McFadyen threatened could happen if the revolving door of justice wasn’t closed.

Believe it or not, McFadyen’s extreme rhetoric (a campaign approach, interestingly, that was criticized by Preston Manning in yesterday’s Globe and Mail) was actually manifesting itself in real life! The revolving door of justice was, literally, letting really bad people out of jail, who stole cars, and killed innocent people.

How, then, did the 2007 election end up?

McFadyen lost, shrinking his caucus from 20 members to 19.

How could this be? Crime and public safety dominated almost every aspect of the campaign, and McFadyen made it his key priority, didn’t he?

Justice, as it turns out, can be very elusive. For victims, justice can be difficult to see. For politicians, justice can be difficult to deliver. For pollsters, justice can be difficult to decipher.

And media, pundits and bloggers should keep this in mind when discovering crime, once again, is a top of mind issue civically and provincially. For whatever reason, its omnipresence alone simply does not appear sufficient to sway voters.

So, which way to Justice in Manitoba? That’s easy. Turn north off the TransCanada, just passed highway #5.

Any other path simply brings you to Chater.