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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Eves isn't reaching for panic button yet

By MURRAY CAMPBELL
Globe and Mail
Wednesday, Sep. 17, 2003

BROCKVILLE, ONT. — It's official. There's no need to panic, because Ernie Eves says so.A day after a new poll showed Ontario's Progressive Conservatives were losing their fight to stay in office, Mr. Eves was the picture of nonchalance.

"I don't believe there is any slide at all," the Conservative Leader said when he was asked about the Ipsos-Reid poll in yesterday's Globe and Mail that showed his party trailing the Liberals by 14 points after earlier surveys had showed them neck and neck.

He said he would never operate a government or a campaign according to polls. That first point is, of course, something of a nose stretcher. Is there a government in the Western world that doesn't sound out public opinion before it jumps?

But on the second point, Mr. Eves would seem more credible. There is a predictability to the Tory election effort that suggests either that strategists really don't care about the polls or they steadfastly believe the public will come around to their side eventually.

It was the same old same old yesterday. Another appeal to the Conservative right, some digs at Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty and the same shopworn stump speech.

The main event focused on crime. It was one of those stagey things where a politician sits down with people to talk about an issue and then dutifully says their comments are appreciated.

In this case, Mr. Eves met with three people whose lives had been touched by crime and with two senior police officers. It was a little extraordinary in that the event took place in Port Perry, a community of 20,000 people northeast of Toronto where the only serious crime anybody could recall was the wounding of a police officer in 1995 and the arrest of a paroled killer a couple of years ago.

Nevertheless, Mr. Eves -- who appeared genuinely moved by the stories he heard -- delivered a message that there was still much to do to improve the safety of communities. "To those who claim community safety is not a major issue, I say 'tell that to the victims,' " he said.

It will come as no surprise at this stage of the campaign to learn that Mr. Eves believes the Liberals are soft on crime. He charged that they have voted against legislation that would make parole tougher to get and provide for harsher treatment for violent youth. Even worse, the Conservative Leader alleged, Mr. McGuinty is in the pocket of a federal Liberal government that treats criminals benevolently.

As a government, the Conservatives have an impressive track record in dealing with victims rights and other justice issues. For example, they established the first sex-offender registry in Canada, they strengthened the Ontario Provincial Police child pornography unit and they enshrined a compensation fund for victims of crime in a Victims Bill of Rights.

The Conservatives have some credibility gaps, however. In the last election, they promised to make criminals pay for the costs of their jail time, but nothing came of that. As well, the Provincial Auditor has cited them for allowing a backlog of 10,000 arrest warrants to accumulate. And now, as my colleague Christie Blatchford writes today, judges are threatening to be more lenient with prisoners sent to the Don Jail, which continues to be overcrowded and dilapidated.

The Liberals charge, of course, that the Tories have paid only lip service to dealing with crime. They have staked out policies that in some areas are similar to those of their opponents -- both would, for example, hire a thousand new police officers.

Sorting through the pledges will be tough for voters and it's doubtful that many will try. The surveys show that the issue doesn't rate highly with an electorate more concerned about education and health care.

You won't likely hear much more about crime. The Conservatives will feel that they have burnished their reputation with their core supporters and that's all they had to do. At some point, they will have to get down to the challenge of closing that gap with the Liberals, but it's still a mystery what their strategy might be. At this point, there's no panic.



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