Saturday, 3 March 2012

A Saturday morning conversation with myself about Bill C-10


I’ve been trying to understand the why of Bill C-10, the omnibus federal criminal justice bill working its way through the final stages of parliamentary debate in Ottawa.  It’s rare to see such a yawning gap between the public policy we need, and the legislation that is being enacted.  Bill C-10 will do nothing to improve public safety, it will clog up the courts, it will criminalize the trivial, and it will download significant costs onto cash-strapped provincial governments.  How could anyone possibly think this is a good thing?
Without much consideration of the matter, I have tended to think that Bill C-10 is simply a gift by the Prime Minister to his core political base, namely traditional conservatives, folks who believe that the criminal justice system has gone to rack and ruin over the past couple of generations, that criminals are molly-coddled, that judges have become social workers, etc. etc.  You know what I mean.
But I haven’t been completely satisfied with this thought, largely because I know that the Prime Minister is an awfully smart person, and he must therefore know that Bill C-10 is bad policy, and he will never be under any threat from the right and so doesn’t really need to throw a bone to his base.  
So I’m still wondering why he is insisting upon Bill C-10.
Hold that thought for a moment.
The great thing about a rainy Saturday morning is that I get some time for reading.  The problem, of course, is that if it’s a good book, I read a paragraph and then start to think about it, and, as my wife will tell you, I stare vacantly at the ceiling for awhile as I try to make sense of what I’ve just read.  And then I read it to her, and we start talking, and then it’s time for breakfast.
Well, I had that experience this morning.  I am in the early pages of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.  (Yes, I know, you probably read that book last year.)  It’s about what we know about intuition, judgement, and decision-making.    
Bear with me while I quote this passage from pages 8 and 9:
...students of policy have noted that the availability heuristic helps explain why some issues are highly salient in the public’s mind while others are neglected.  People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory - and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.  Frequently mentioned topics populate the mind even as others slip away from awareness.  In turn, what the media choose to report corresponds to their view of what is currently on the public’s mind.
Aha.
Although we live in one of the safest places on earth, and crime rates continue to trend downward, and we have much more serious issues to worry about, we are bombarded by crime stories.  Not stories about the absence of crime, but individual crime stories, horrific, tragic, heart-wrenching, emotionally disturbing stories.  How natural, therefore, that we generalize from the individual, and believe that crime is rampant, when it is not, and that we are all at risk, though we are not.  And how logical, therefore, that we then make the leap and assume that this non-existent explosion of crime is the result of a failure of public policy, and needs to be addressed by legislation that “cracks down” on crime.
So perhaps the real reason we are getting Bill C-10 is not that Prime Minister Harper is playing to his relatively small base.  He’s playing to all of us.
Now, my wife, who is smarter than me about most things, heard me out on this point a few minutes ago and said, “of course. Now don’t tell me you’re still wondering how Vander Zalm managed to kill the HST?”
Alas, we are so easily fooled.  But's that’s another discussion, isn’t it?  
Time for breakfast.

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