The decision by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to stand against a crime bill that he once supported was a blow to the federal government's justice agenda - one that allows the Conservatives to highlight the policy gap between the two federal parties.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson held a news conference Thursday to lambaste Mr. Ignatieff for his party's about-face on Bill S-10, which would impose mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes, including the cultivation of as few as six marijuana plants if the crop was intended for sale.
"What starker contrast could there be between our two political parties and our two philosophies on that," said Mr. Nicholson. "I think he has a lot of explanations to do as to why he has flipped on this and I say, if he would flip-flop on this, he would flip-flop on anything."
But, for the first time since Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office in 2006, the Liberals are banking that the distinction emphasized by the Conservatives will work in their favour.
With a potential election looming, Canadians are being asked to choose between uncosted Conservative legislation that would take a hard line on drug criminals, and the Liberals' view that the country can't afford to throw an undetermined number of people behind bars when similar policies have failed in other jurisdictions.
Bill S-10 has been passed by the Senate and now needs approval by the House of Commons.
The Liberals, who supported an identical bill that died when Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament in late 2009, say they will not support this new piece of legislation because it would disproportionately target young people and would cause an explosion of mega-prisons.
They also point out that another Conservative justice bill, one that removed the two-for-one credit given for time served before sentencing, has been projected by Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page to cost $10-billion over five years. The Conservatives originally set aside $90-million for that legislation, then increased their own estimate to $2-billion - far short of Mr. Page's projection.
When asked why the government will not supply a cost breakdown of the bill as has been demanded by the opposition, Mr. Nicholson said the costs are just an excuse being used by the Liberals for voting against S-10.
He would not attach a dollar figure to the legislation when asked to do so by reporters. Nor would he estimate the increased number of people who would be incarcerated - a figure that would indicate how many new prisons would have to be constructed.
Don Head, the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, was asked at a Commons committee earlier in the day to provide estimates for how much the Conservative justice bills will cost taxpayers and how many more inmates they will create.
Although Mr. Head offered to provide those numbers for the bills that have been passed into law, he said he could not divulge the costs of legislation that has yet to be enacted. "Unfortunately," he said, "I am bound by cabinet confidence."
Mr. Head did tell MPs that he expected to hire 4,000 more staff over the next two years, and said that 30 per cent of federal prisoners would likely have to share cells with other inmates before prison expansion is completed.
Mark Holland, the Liberal public safety critic, said the problem with Bill S-10 is that it doesn't distinguish between an 18-year-old who makes a mistake by growing six plants and a member of the Hells Angels who grows 200.
And without knowing what the bill will cost, "we are really walking around with a blindfold on." Before Parliament votes on something, "Canadians would rightfully expect we know how much we're signing on for," said Mr. Holland.
The approach of the Conservatives has been tried many places and has always failed to make streets safer despite the cost, he said. "States like California find themselves near bankruptcy with policies they are desperate to undo and have little power to change," he said.