After a series of backroom talks, the Conservative government is closing in on a rare deal with the Bloc Québécois on a law-and-order issue, namely the toughening of Canada's parole system.
The topic came to the forefront last week with the release on parole of fraudster Vincent Lacroix, who had served one-sixth of his 13-year prison sentence. Seizing on popular outrage in Quebec, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe kick-started negotiations directly with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a bid to eliminate the provision that applies to non-violent offenders.
Officials from both parties said Wednesday that the talks are progressing, although it remains to be seen whether the new rules will apply to offenders who have already started serving their sentences, or only to future convicts.
The discussions are an unusual occurrence in Ottawa, where the Conservatives continuously attack the Bloc as the "separatist" member of a potential opposition coalition.
In addition, the Harper government and the Bloc are almost always on opposite ends of justice issues, with the Conservative Party repeatedly portraying the Bloc as being on the side of criminals and ignoring victims' rights.
But the Bloc has seized on the government's biggest weakness on the file, which is the ongoing possibility for non-violent offenders to obtain parole after serving only one-sixth of their prison sentences, instead of the one-third that applies to most offences.
All parties want to change the system, but the Conservatives had refused to speed up the approval of a Bloc proposal to remove the eligibility for early parole. As a result, Mr. Lacroix got out of prison after serving one-sixth of the punishment that he received for his role in the $115-million debacle of Norbourg Asset Management Inc.
The Bloc responded by pushing the government to change the law before another fraudster, disgraced Montreal financial adviser Earl Jones, also becomes eligible to apply for early parole as part of his 11-year prison sentence.
The political stakes are high as the Conservatives want to keep presenting themselves as the guardians of personal security in the next election. A recent Léger Marketing poll showed that the Conservatives have room to grow among women and older voters in francophone ridings in Quebec by exploiting issues such as insecurity and fear of crime.
The Conservatives have a number of justice bills before Parliament, but many of them have been languishing in committee.
One of these bills, C-39, would involve a complete overhaul of Canada's parole system and eliminate eligibility for early parole for non-violent offenders, but it is not likely to move quickly through the legislative process.
That's why the Bloc has pushed for a smaller bill on the issue and is arguing that if the Conservatives had responded to its warnings in 2009 and 2010, Mr. Lacroix would still be behind bars.
"They are starting to notice that they were wrong," Mr. Duceppe told reporters on Wednesday. "It's better late than never."
The negotiations on the parole issue were launched on Monday when Mr. Duceppe, frustrated by the government's lack of answers on the matter in the House, crossed the floor after Question Period and sat down with Mr. Harper.
That same evening, the Prime Minister phoned Mr. Duceppe, and high-level discussions to deal with the issue were launched between each party's House leaders, among other officials.
Regardless of the outcome, it can be expected that the Conservative Party will continue with its campaign to win voters in Quebec by promoting a law-and-order agenda. New Conservative attack ads are already lambasting the Bloc for voting against legislation dealing with street gangs.
In addition, Conservative Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, who lost his daughter to a recidivist on parole in 2002, has regularly used his pulpit to accuse the Bloc of forgetting about the victims of crime and of siding with criminals.
The Bloc, on the other hand, has vigorously objected to any Conservative proposal to impose minimum sentences in the Criminal Code, arguing that judges need the leeway to impose their sentences on a case-by-case basis.