The Liberals have had a change of heart on a key Conservative crime bill and now say they will vote against legislation that would impose mandatory minimum sentences on some drug offenders, including those caught with as few as six marijuana plants.
Bill S-10, which has been passed by the Senate, has had many incarnations.
In 2009, when it was called Bill C-15, the Liberals plugged their noses and voted for it rather than risk being labelled "soft on crime" by the Conservative government. The Senate, which was dominated by Liberals at that time, proposed amendments to the bill that were rejected by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. The legislation eventually died when Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament in early 2010.
When Parliament returned after prorogation, the government reintroduced the bill in the Senate where Conservatives now hold a majority. It was passed Dec. 13 and must now be approved by the House of Commons.
But, this time, the Liberal MPs say they are unwilling get behind it. "This bill isn't tough on crime, it's dumb on crime," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said in a release issued Wednesday.
"We're all in favour of cracking down on serious criminals, but this bill doesn't distinguish between massive grow-ops and a first-time offender with a small amount," he said. "What's more, the Conservatives won't tell us what the fiscal implications of this bill are. How many billions will it cost? How many mega-prisons will have to be built? For these reasons, we just can't support it."
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has estimated that the cost of another crime bill, one that eliminated the practice of giving two-for-one credit for time served before sentencing, would amount to between $10-billion and $13-billion.
The Conservative government disputes that figure. But no one has calculated the cost of Bill S-10, which is expected to put many more people behind bars.
That looming expense has convinced Liberals they can safely vote against S-10 without suffering political consequences.
And, unlike two years ago, there have been several prominent organizations – including the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, which represents 11 of the largest Christian denominations, and a group representing more than 500 medical professionals from across Canada –publicly decrying the impact of Conservative crime policies.
In a letter to Mr. Harper written this week, the health professionals said there is no evidence that mandatory minimum sentences will reduce drug use or deter crime. But tougher sentences, they said, would have a disproportionately negative impact on young people and members of Canada's aboriginal communities as well as increasing HIV rates.
The fact that the Liberals are willing to vote against a Conservative crime bill suggests it may be more difficult in future for Mr. Harper's government to get crime legislation, which has dominated the Conservative agenda, passed into law.
A date for a vote on Bill S-10 in the House of Commons had not yet been decided. Both the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois opposed it when it was called Bill C-15.
The Conservatives argue that Bill S-10 is necessary to deter drug crime. "The Liberals may not see drug trafficking as a serious offence. We do," Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said after being told the Liberals would no longer support the bill.
"And so that puts us in a very distinct position and an opposite position. This is a consistent Liberal position. They use the excuse of money to not protect Canadians. They simply say well, we don't have enough money to protect Canadians. I think that is the first priority of a government, that is to protect the victims of crimes and ordinary law-abiding citizens."