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john ibbitson

For the past year, Vic Toews has been a something of phantom minister. But the killing of Bill C-30 could give him new life – this time, in the fight to lower police costs.

The Public Safety Minister botched the Internet surveillance legislation so badly (all federal and provincial privacy commissioners, along with all other critics, were "with us or with the child pornographers") that he was widely presumed to be a dead minister walking, destined for demotion or a judgeship.

When it comes to cabinet speculation, those who talk don't know and those who know don't talk. But what matters is, the bill is gone, and the controversy with it. And perhaps not coincidentally Mr. Toews has been visible in recent weeks on a potentially key new issue: the economics of policing.

Back in 2008, the Harper government pledged $400-million over five years to a Police Officers Recruitment Fund, with a goal of recruiting 2,500 front-line officers nationwide. That funding expires April 1, and Mr. Toews has indicated there are no plans to renew it.

Already, municipalities across the country are warning that they will have to fire the officers and dismantle the programs that they created from the fund if it is shut down.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Toews gave a speech last month in which he questioned the spiralling costs of policing.

"Spending on policing has increased steadily," he told the Summit on the Economics of Policing, while "the volume and severity of reported crime have both been on the decline."

"Police services face two options," he told the gathering. "They can do nothing and eventually be forced to cut drastically … or they can be proactive, get ahead of the curve and have greater flexibility in designing and implementing both incremental and meaningful structural reforms."

Heaven forfend that any Conservative, let alone Vic Toews, would agree that spending on the fight against crime is going up even as crime rates are going down.

But it's true that police costs in general, and police salaries in particular, are out of control. Total spending on police services nationally has doubled since 1997, reaching $12-billion.

While the average Canadian income has grown by 11 per cent over the past decade, the average police salary has grown by 40 per cent. Policing is doing to municipal budgets what health care is doing to provincial budgets: threatening to consume them.

But policing is mostly a provincial and municipal responsibility. At this point, Ottawa doesn't appear willing – or constitutionally able – to do much more than to offer its services as a hub for information-sharing aimed at identifying and replicating best practices.

Whether it could evolve into something more – a sustained initiative to carve out a federal role in reigning in policing costs – or simply a cover for the upcoming funding cut when the recruitment program expires, is unclear. We may know more after the next budget.

But if nothing else, beating the drum of rising policing costs could keep Mr. Toews occupied for the next few months, while Mr. Harper contemplates the bigger picture.

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