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Do Ontarians really want to see criminals cleaning up their parks?

It worked for Rob Ford. It worked for Stephen Harper. And now, Tim Hudak hopes, it will work for him.

With his promise to bring back forced and unpaid manual labour for prison inmates, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader is going straight for the gut.

It's not an accident that Mr. Hudak's most populist policy announcement to date was delivered on the eve of a party convention at which he will unveil his long-awaited platform - his best chance to define himself to voters. He is presenting himself as a man who has little time for the chattering classes, the academics and lawyers and newspaper columnists who will recoil from the spectre of reviving chain gangs, and all the time in the world for the people he describes as "hard-working Ontarians who play by the rules."

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There could be no more visceral evocation of that pitch than the prospect of law-abiding families rubber-necking at criminals from provincial prisons cleaning up their local park, or picking up trash along the highway, or cleaning graffiti off city walls - the main activities that Mr. Hudak said he has in mind. And if the policy merits don't really add up, that's somewhat beside the point.

There are good reasons no other province has gone anywhere near what Mr. Hudak is proposing. Unlike other prison work, including what's offered on a voluntary basis in federal prisons, it would serve no rehabilitative purpose by teaching professional skills. There is little evidence to suggest it would be a deterrent to committing crimes in the first place. The Tories' claims that it would be revenue neutral, considering the costs of transporting and supervising the prisoners, seem dubious. And they could run into all kinds of problems with contract workers who are currently paid to do some of the tasks they want inmates to do for free.

But the Conservatives would dismiss all these concerns - along with the fact that the majority of provincial prisoners wouldn't even be eligible for forced labour because they're awaiting either trial or sentencing - as semantics. And if the courts eventually struck down what they're proposing, then that would be just fine as well - all the better to present Mr. Hudak as standing up for basic values in a world gone slightly mad.

None of this is really about making the province safer; even the Tories all but acknowledge that they're proposing punishment for punishment's sake. Rather, it's about appealing to a sense of right and wrong that they think Premier Dalton McGuinty, who is more about nuance, tends to neglect.

While it's tempting to cast it as a sop to the Tories' mostly rural base, the party is clearly trying to reach a broader audience as well. The federal Conservatives have recently shown that it's possible to make morality pitches to swing voters - particularly recent immigrants with a social conservative streak.

For Mr. Hudak, that's tougher to achieve. The provincial government's main responsibilities are delivering social programs like health care and education, which don't easily lend themselves to the same sort of positioning. In those areas, in fact, he's more or less parroting the governing Liberals' policies, for fear of scaring anyone.

But even if it's more symbolic than practical, the prison work policy gives him that opportunity. Partly because it's not especially consequential in the grand scheme of things, it offers a chance to appeal to whatever bloodlust a restless electorate is feeling right now.

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It's conceivable that Mr. Hudak has overstepped; that some of the voters he's courting will resent him for going only for the gut, and not for the head. Or perhaps, unlikely though it seems, the governing Liberals will succeed in persuading Ontarians that the PC Leader plans to set violent criminals loose in their parks. (In making that argument, which overlooks that the most serious offenders serve in federal prisons rather than provincial ones, the Liberals are going straight for the gut themselves.)

But Conservatives have recently been adept at aligning themselves with the strain of populism sweeping the electorate, and Mr. Hudak evidently believes he's taking it to its logical extension. The more their opponents try to fight them on this issue, the more they risk getting lumped in with the chattering classes, unable to see the world the way all those hard-working Ontarians do.

With a report from Anna Mehler-Paperny

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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