Perhaps it’s the ludicrously hard start (even for Canada) of winter this year. Or maybe it’s the fact that my wife and I will not be enjoying the company of our kids and grandkids for Christmas dinner (it’s the in-laws turns). But my mood, though not yet churlish, has become unusually susceptible to the creeping incivilities of others.
I have mused awhile about Canada’s Industry Minister James Moore, who told a journalist earlier this month that the federal government is not responsible for helping hungry kids. His exact words were: “Certainly, we want to make sure that kids go to school full-bellied, but is that always the government’s job to be there to serve people their breakfast? Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.”
Quite right, Mr. Moore. In other, more famous, words the sentiment persists: “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses; are they still in operation? Those who are badly off must go there. If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
To be fair to Mr. Moore, he did apologize (then again, so did Scrooge, after a fashion). The industry minister allowed that he chose his words poorly and that he deeply regretted his insensitivity. Indeed, he said, “all levels of government, all members of our society, have a responsibility to be compassionate and care for those in need. While more work is needed, I know the cause of fighting poverty is not helped by comments like those I made.”
Still, the question at the base of this unfortunate fracas has found expression in other venues. Specifically, “How obliged are the authorities to save us from ourselves?”
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente (who makes a productive habit of ticking off her readers) really wants to know. The question, she wrote last week, “is at the heart of many public policy debates, including the new one over whether to expand the CPP. If you are a semi-upper-middle-class person who hasn’t saved for your retirement, then you’re in for a shock. The question is whether the government should cushion that shock by forcing you (and everyone else) to save more. My personal view is no – especially because it would mean extra taxes on the young, who’ve already been screwed enough. The government has a duty to save you from outright poverty, but after that, you’re on your own.”
So, that’s the choice? Penury or plentitude? No middle ground for a middle class that hasn’t been able to save for its retirement thanks at least partly to government fiscal mismanagement? Nope, because as Ms. Wente declares, “Sadly, minimalism in government has gone out of fashion. Today, it’s the maternalists who rule. They believe that people are like children who, if left unattended, will spend all their allowance and leave the spinach on their plate. Since the people can’t be trusted to act in their own best interests, the authorities must nag and nudge and regulate us into doing so.”
Authorities, presumably, like Canada’s Justice Minister Peter MacKay who insists that judges across Canada stop screwing around with the victim surcharge process during sentencing.
Currently, convicted parties must pay $100 for each summary offence and $200 for each indictable one. According to a CTV item last week, “Ontario Court Justice Colin Westman does not believe courts should impose the ‘victim services surcharge’ on impoverished or mentally ill criminals. ‘It’s unrealistic,’ Justice Westman says. ‘So if it’s not unrealistic, aren’t you bringing disrespect on this court by imposing things that either aren’t going to be enforced or can’t be enforced?”
Maybe, but Mr. MacKay – playing his “father knows best” routine – says do it anyway. “Judges cannot ignore the role of the Crown in passing legislation in our democratically elected Parliament of Canada,” he told the Globe and Mail. “Therefore, they are there like everybody else to respect the law, not flout it. . .A $100 or $200 surcharge is out of proportion to the rehabilitation and the respect that needs to occur in a justice system? I just fundamentally disagree with that. We believe as a government that giving victims a real role and respect within our justice system includes the victim fine surcharge.”
What can a victim of a crime can do with an extra hundred bucks-or-so? Save it for a rainy day. Increasingly, it looks like he (and the rest of us) will need it.