09/14/2011 05:24 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:20 EST

More wedge politics: Tories play crime card; Liberals warn Tory plan dangerous

TORONTO - Accusations of criminal coddling and putting community safety at risk surfaced on Ontario's campaign trail Wednesday as the Tories pushed hard on the hot-button crime issue in an election already characterized by wedge politics.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak staked out the classic right-wing position, accusing Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty of pandering to criminals rather than looking out for besieged communities in need of proper protection.

For his part, McGuinty portrayed himself as the policeman's friend and Hudak's ideas as potentially dangerous.

Laure Paquette, an associate professor of political science at Lakehead University, said both parties are trying to avoid a discussion of the fact that the government elected Oct. 6 is likely going to have make painful spending cuts.

"You cannot win an election on this, so people are running from one distracting issue to another," Paquette said.

"But what does work is fear and what does work is attack politics."

Ignoring statistics showing crime rates falling and concerns police chiefs have expressed about his approach, Hudak used both strategies, playing on public fears of crime as he attacked McGuinty's approach to criminals.

At one campaign stop, Hudak pushed a proposal to make a sex-offender registry public so parents could know if a pedophile lived in the neighbourhood.

"Dalton McGuinty seems to want to put the right to privacy of sexual predators ahead of the safety of our kids and grandkids," Hudak said.

The Conservatives are also pledging to put inmates to work with their latter-day chain-gang proposal in which prisoners would do chores such as pick up garbage or clean up graffiti.

On Tuesday night, Hudak accused the Liberals -- and New Democrats -- of coddling criminals.

"Do you want four more years of the guy who actually used your tax money to pay for high-definition cable TV packages that many families can't afford for their own kids?"

McGuinty countered that his government cancelled the cable program for prisoners months ago, saying it was brought in by a previous Tory government.

The Liberal leader also bragged that his government had hired more police officers, and, utilizing the same fear and attack approach, warned that Hudak's put-criminals-to-work program would be costly and potentially dangerous.

"He wants to take prisoners who are safe and secure away from the general population, and he wants to release them and put them into our communities," McGuinty said.

"It puts our communities at risk."

The Liberals also denounced Hudak's sex-registry idea as a "bumper-sticker slogan," saying, as police chiefs have warned, that it could cause vigilantism or drive offenders underground.

Irvin Waller, an expert on crime victims, expressed disappointment at campaign rhetoric that single-mindedly focuses on some kind of crackdown on criminals.

"(People) do want offenders to be held accountable, but they also want things done to stop crime in the first place," Waller said.

Much of the campaign's first week was dominated by noise over a Liberal proposal to help a handful of new Canadian professionals get a job.

The Tories yelled that McGuinty would help newcomers when many other people in the province were unemployed. The Liberals in turn blasted the Tories as xenophobic.

Peter Graefe, who teaches political science at McMaster University, said Hudak may be trying to emulate Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's strategy of trying to win over small parts of the electorate one wedge issue at a time.

Still, Graefe called Hudak's approach a bit of a head-scratcher.

"Hudak set up the campaign as one about leadership," he said.

"Running a wedge campaign doesn't really allow him to present himself as a premier as opposed to an angry politician."

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who has refused to be drawn into the Liberal and Conservative mud-slinging, was similarly aloof on the crime spat.

"They've invited me into the sandbox but I'm not playing," Horwath said.

She said she would want to consult with police chiefs about making the sex-offender registry public given concerns they have expressed.