10/02/2014 01:38 EDT | Updated 12/02/2014 05:59 EST

Recent crimes in Newfoundland spurred public safety rebrand, new minister says

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - A recent spate of violent crime inspired the "rebranding" of Newfoundland and Labrador's Justice department, says the new public safety minister and attorney general.

But Judy Manning is downplaying concerns that the rare move to absorb the Justice department into her new portfolio amounts to fear mongering.

"We want to respond to the issues that are facing us with respect to the public's concerns of safety that we've seen raised," she said Thursday in an interview.

Manning cited "a host of recent incidents" including shootings, a series of home invasions in St. John's and the stabbing last week of an 11-year-old boy on a soccer field in nearby Conception Bay South.

"The nature of the crimes that we're seeing in this province has changed and we're determined to respond to that," she said. "We want to ensure that our people feel safe and secure here in Newfoundland and Labrador, and we're doing our best to make that happen."

Premier Paul Davis made what he calls "the new face of crime" a central message in his push for the Progressive Conservative leadership. The former police officer, who was sworn in Friday, named former Royal Newfoundland Constabulary chief Joe Browne as his head of staff.

Defence lawyer Bob Simmonds is among those questioning whether the newly revamped government is focusing on isolated attacks to win votes. He said it's an approach that, like the federal government's law-and-order agenda, flies in the face of falling crime rates.

"This almost looks like a knee-jerk ... reaction done to try to capitalize somewhat on the same philosophy that the prime minister utilizes," he said.

"You know, if I can make people believe the streets are not safe and I'm going to make them safe for them, that's a vote-getter."

Bob Buckingham, another St. John's defence lawyer, was more blunt.

"It's all nonsense," he said. "This is politics without principle. This is a police agenda. This is a fear-mongering agenda.

"Justice is one of the fundamental cornerstones of a free and democratic society," he said of a department that has roots stretching back to 1898.

"You don't rebrand it."

Buckingham said recent high-profile crimes such as a double murder-suicide last October in Conception Bay South are not random. They typically involve members of gangs or domestic disputes, he said.

Statistics Canada reported in July that the police-reported Crime Severity Index fell in 2013 for the 10th straight year. Total crimes reported in the St. John's metro region last year were 6,464 for every 100,000 people, down three per cent from 2012.

Across Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador now stands alone as a province where the public safety minister does double duty as attorney general with no separate justice portfolio.

"The optics of this are a little unsettling at first glance," said Christopher Dunn, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

"When you're establishing a department and giving it a name, you are essentially sending a signal to the body politic that: 'We've identified a problem and we're going to be dealing with it.'

"There's probably more votes that can be achieved by renaming a ministry Public Safety than by naming it Justice."

Manning said the change will not alter the quality of advice or work behind the scenes.

"Certainly the justice functions that have always been carried out within the department of Justice continue to be carried out within the department of Public Safety," she said. "We have the same senior levels of personnel here dealing with those issues."

The flap over her portfolio comes on top of the fact that Manning, a 36-year-old St. John's lawyer and political novice, is unelected. She was a surprise addition when Davis named his cabinet Tuesday.

Manning has drawn fire from critics of all political stripes by saying she won't immediately run for a seat in one of three expected byelections. She said again Thursday that she will run in her home district of Placentia-St. Mary's "whenever that opportunity arises."

Davis under provincial law must call an election within the next year.

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