Quebecers and crime - once more, with feeling

I guess the gauntlet was dropped while I was on vacation…. (I’ll have more on my hunt for Brian Mulroney-related mementos in Baie-Comeau later.)

Of course, Colleague Wells scores his fair share of points in his post. However, there are at least three assumptions there that make me cock my eyebrow in his general direction:

(1) That the modest spike the Conservatives are enjoying can somehow be traced back to a focus on crime, if not its attacks against the Bloc on crime-related issues;

Let’s take a look at where the poll numbers in Quebec have been over the course of the last couple of years:

(These are CROP numbers—partly because they tend to do some of the largest surveys in Quebec, but mostly because they publish the results of past surveys along with their new ones.)

June 2009: LPC 35%, BQ 31%, CPC 13%, NDP 17%

March 2009: LPC 30%, BQ 35%, CPC 18%, NDP 13%

January 2009: LPC 31%, BQ 34%, CPC 16%, NDP 15%

October 14 election: LPC 24%, BQ 38%, CPC 22%, NDP 12%

August 2008: LPC 20%, BQ 30%, CPC 31%, NDP 14%

March 2008: LPC 20%, BQ 30%, CPC 29%, NDP 15%

January 2008: LPC 20%, BQ 36%, CPC 27%, NDP 13%

October 2007: LPC 17%, BQ 31%, CPC 31%, NDP 14%

August 2007: LPC 21%, BQ 35%, CPC 26%, NDP 13%

February 2007: LPC 26%, BQ 36%, CPC 22%, NDP 10%

December 2006: LPC 20%, BQ 42%, CPC 21%, NDP 10%

Notice the pattern? Neither did I. At least, not one that would indicate that a 4.6% jump in the middle of an uneventful summer means a party is somehow doing something better than the others.

Besides, it’s easy to find polling data that shows Quebecers were in fact miffed at the Tories’ for their tough-on-crime agenda in the last election. In late September 2008, before they’d made their campaign pledge to stiffen sentences for youths, the Conservatives were at 34% in Quebec, two points ahead of the Bloc. Two weeks after they made the announcement, they’d tumbled to 23% support. By then, Quebecers were telling pollsters even Stéphane Dion had run a better campaign than Stephen Harper.

(2) That Quebecers’ tough-on-crime leanings necessarily translate into support for mandatory minimum sentences;

An Angus-Reid poll from June 2009 showed a majority of Quebecers (53%) support mandatory minimums, but it was the lowest figure in country. Compared to Alberta (84%) and Manitoba/Saskatchewan (80%), Quebecers appear markedly less inclined than many others to endorse the idea. Moreover, the 53% figure is a ways off from L’actualité‘s 2005 poll that showed 83% of Quebecers want to see criminal penalties stiffened, meaning there’s a good chuck of people that either doesn’t equate mandatory minimums with stiffer sentences or doesn’t believe they’re the proper way to achieve them.

and (3) That Quebecers who believe criminals should get stiffer sentences are looking to the federal government to do something about it.

This is where I think the “chasm” I mentioned in my earlier post exists, especially when it come to youth crime. Quebec has been tooting its horn for many, many years over its approach to youth crime. In 2007, it had the lowest youth crime rate in the country, one-sixth that of the national leader, the Northwest Territories. The province’s softer touch when it comes to delinquent youths dates back to at least the 1950s and the Boscoville rehab centre for youth. Whether or not Quebecers actually support that softer touch is one thing, but I think it’s fair to say it’s become ingrained.

The other problem with this idea is one Paul acknowledges: “Quebecers are more likely than in any other region to perceive crime levels as decreasing over the past decade (30.1% in Quebec vs. a 26.1% national average) and less likely (38.8% vs. 47.7%) to believe crime is increasing.” They might theoretically support stiffer sentences, but it’s just not clear it’s much of a voting issue. A Léger Marketing poll at the start of the last campaign put public safety dead last (3%) in terms of election priorities, behind both gas prices and poverty.

All that said, I can’t really argue with Paul’s argument that Quebecers aren’t inherently softer on crime than other Canadians. He makes a compelling case that it’s an overstated pseudo-fact and that I’m guilty of having overstated it. I think he’s right on both counts.

But I still don’t think Harper and co. will get anywhere in Quebec by attacking the Bloc on crime issues.