Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Misplaced Priorities

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Golden Tacks, Full-Timers (Friday November 10, 2006 at 11:40 pm)

While hackles are raised over government musings, government action goes ignored.

Fierce reaction to the possiblity that the Harper government would seek to preclude federal spending in certain areas is overkill for several reasons. First, federal spending on social programs (the contentious sectors) is a relatively minor contribution. The previous government’s daycare proposal would have been a drop in the bucket had it been for a national program (it was little more than that in Quebec). On health care, the federal government wants credit for lowering its own taxes to “allow” the provinces to increase their spending through higher rates of their own. While that’s a fair explanation for the complained-of decline in federal contributions to health spending, the claim that the federal government continues to support healthcare on an annual basis by not raising taxes rings a bit hollow. Based on the government’s figures for 2004-2005, the federal contribution, with $17 Billion in tax points is $27.2 Billion. Less the tax points, that comes to $10.2 Billion of $83 Billion in spending, or just over 12% of funds (the exact proportion varies by province).

Second, unlike the government’s Senate reform proposals, there wouldn’t likely be a public backlash if the Liberal majority in the Senate blocks a constitutional bar on federal spending. Therefore, even if the possibility being discussed materializes into legislation and is passed through the House of Commons with the aid of the Bloc Quebecois, the Liberals would have no reason to fear killing it in the Senate.

It’s the second reason that explains attention to the issue. The idea of Constitution-wrangling is inherently dangerous (if not psychotic); and the same threat of public unease which has dimmed Michael Ignatieff’s hopes in the Liberal leadership contest will surely afflict the already-beleaguered Tories.

So can blogger attention to the issue be faulted? It’s a pure political ploy, after all — drawing attention to the foibles of your opponent.

The Cold Hard Wonk loves politics, but there is good and bad. Full points to the bloggers for calling the Prime Minister out on a dumb-as-dishwasher proposal, but minus several times as many for ignoring the far more serious problem.

Unlike the fearsome Constitutional amendment, the government’s plan to place police representatives on the boards which approve judicial candidates is more than possible. That makes it a clear and present danger.

Someone arrested and brought before the court suffers from a problematic bias. Police arrest can create an unfair presumption of guilt — a matter that can’t be left for the police to determine for one simple reason: it’s their job to find guilty people. The only thing that stands between an accused and conviction is the premise that their guilt must be proven, and the judge is the guardian of that narrow premise.

To properly guard against false convictions a judge must be as neutral as possible. That means in particular that a judge must avoid the understandable urge to believe that once the police do their duty the arrested party is likely to be guilty. It’s a hard thing to do in a society where people are raised to respect the police. It must also be a hard thing for a dutiful officer to cope with — that after all their effort and care, their word counts for nothing more than any other person’s. That’s why it’s essential that the two be rigidly separated. Police must have no role in judging and judges no role in investigating. By maintaining that separation, neither can be unduly influenced.

What happens, then, when the police, as an organization, are given the power to vet judges? Could a candidate’s just indifference be mistaken for hostility? Could the police representative, acting faithfully and in what she believes to be good faith, weed out the very candidates whose balanced views burden justice? Is that a temptation too great to be risked?

Without question. That’s why the Canadian Judicial Council is seriously concerned. It’s an issue which should be of real significance to Canadians, though it is undoubtedly harder to present than the simple gut reaction to Constitutional debate. In choosing to talk about the unimportant but volatile issue over the dangerous while ignoring the dangerous but subtle one, they’re playing easy politics at public expense.

There is another option — cover both; and politicians claiming to stand up for Canada should be asked why they didn’t.

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