So, this morning Kevin Page, Parliamentary Budget Officer, reports that the “Truth in Sentencing” legislation will cost Canadians $5.1B to implement between now and 2016. Essentially, Canadians will pay an extra billion dollars a year on a program that most experts agree will do nothing to reduce crime or make Canadians safer.
It seems worth looking back at this point at the Gun Registry, which the conservatives bemoaned as been an ineffective boondoggle, but of course it also ended up costing an additional billion dollars a year to manage, and it is equally unclear if it has made Canadians any safer (that said it has helped police officers who use it 10,000 times a day, but whether this help is worth $1B or if that money could have been better spent elsewhere is unclear).
The point here is fear and ideology can do terrible things to budgets (not to mention social outcomes, a billion dollars – not to mention TWO billion dollars – a year on certain social programs could do a lot to prevent crime). In both cases we have policies that appeal to values of a base (tough on guns vs. tough on crime) when in reality this is merely posturing (lets spend money to look like we are stopping gun violence vs. lets spend money to look like we are stopping crime). Tracking guns and locking away criminals feels like it has a direct impact so it must be effective whereas offering more drug and alcohol rehab programs or after school programs is indirect so must be less effective. But notice its what we feel, not what is actually empirically demonstrable. So should we lose all hope in the ability of politicians to pursue effective public policy?
I say no…
While billion dollar lessons are painful to learn (Ontario, e-health and proprietary software is another one that comes to mind) they can be salutary in getting everybody to refocus on what’s effective which means getting back to the evidence. What will be interesting is to see if the Conservative government can adapt. For this government the challenge will be greater as ideology has trumped evidence for most of the past few years. Remember this is the government that has decried Insite, the supervised injection, despite the evidence that it works and even had a Minister (Clement when he was at Health) rant about how the Canadian Medical Association and its doctors were unethical for supporting it. They were of course, just supporting the best medical practice and outcome. So, this could be a long road to travel.
Of course, if they fight the tide, I suspect that the prison boondoggle could turn into their version of the gun registry (especially coming on the heels of the G20 fake lake). But I suspect that ideological fervor in the face of budget realities has a much shorter road… to opposition. So structurally, they’ll be pushed down the road whether they want it or not. Either way, it will make for some interesting political and policy watching.