Attack ad culture hurts Canadians

Political civility takes a holiday.

By Samantha Thompson
[deputy editor]

We have seen a critical shift in Canada over the last few elections: campaigning, and the attack ads that accompany that process, are no longer being limited to the few months leading up to an election. This campaigning is happening all the time, something which Rick Mercer has called the “new normal.”

“In the old days between elections prime ministers used to devote all of their time to governing Canada,” he said in a September 2012 “Rick’s Rant.”

“Not any more. Now a prime minister has negative ads to approve and reputations to destroy, being mean and cutthroat is not something you just do every four years. Now, it’s a full time job.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Laureen Harper politick with a baby panda. (Photo courtesy PMO)

This transition has created a very hostile environment that very few people would choose to be a part of. Political campaigns are one of the few places where you can publicly tear someone apart, and face no repercussions other than perhaps having some attack ads made about you as well. This style of politics is not particularly attractive to most Canadians, who continue to turn out in low numbers for elections.

Unfortunately, this tradition of negative politicking is one that has proven itself very difficult to change. In the last provincial election, the BC NDP ran a campaign fairly free of attack ads (there were some, but they were not overwhelming). When it came time to vote, they were slaughtered. Sometimes these political upsets happen, but what made the loss even more heartbreaking was a report that came out of the NDP this past September, essentially saying that the reason they lost was because they were not aggressive enough. When it comes time for the next election, you can almost guarantee that the attack ads will be back in the party.

We saw a similar result in the last federal election as well. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives went after the Liberals’ Michael Ignatieff, claiming he was “just visiting” (Ignatieff had been out of Canada for some time while he was busy being a professor at Harvard, among other things). Ignatieff was painted as a weak, not-truly-Canadian kind of leader who would destroy Canada and everything it stands for. The Liberals ran their own attack ads as well, but they weren’t as effective at destroying Harper’s image — something that should be much easier to do. The result? The Liberals lost the election, by a more significant margin than they have in decades.

With the election of the Liberals’ new leader, Justin Trudeau, we have seen a rebranding of what Canadian politics should be like: hopeful, positive, welcome to change. The Conservatives ran an attack ad against Trudeau shortly after he was elected, and Trudeau responded with an ad that appeared to be taking the higher road. He is pictured in a classroom and dressed fairly casually in jeans. “We can keep mistrusting and finding flaws in each other,” he says, “or we can pull together and get to work.”

It is a valuable message that he is putting out there, but it is difficult to predict at this point if it will be effective. In Trudeau’s case, the approach to positive politics could be genuine, or it could be a brilliant branding scheme. Certainly the Liberals have been doing better since Trudeau’s election as party leader, but it is common for parties to see this “honeymoon phase” of popularity following a leadership race. A political world where positive politics get you elected is an ideal one, because it encourages productive debate around important issues, and tends to reduce cynicism.

An interesting case study for this approach comes out of Germany. Attack ads are not allowed, by law, and Germans are genuinely not interested in seeing attack ads in their elections. If a politician does run a vicious campaign, chances are they will not be elected. This is how Germans use their vote to do more than just elect a leader — they use their vote as a voice to demand civility from their candidates.

What attack ads ultimately contribute to in Canada is a political culture where it is acceptable for elected representatives to make each other look bad, and lie. We have become so used to this environment that we expect it of them — Stephen Harper’s latest antics politicking with pandas makes for excellent dinner table fodder. Instead of demanding more from our politicians however, requiring them to step up the plate and actually argue for policies that will benefit Canadians, we’re allowing them to get away with whatever they want.

It is possible that attack ads are critical to the success of a democratic Canada, however they should not be seen solely as “the way things are.” Democracies and the way political systems operate can only be deemed successful if they are constantly evolving to serve the very society they are designed to serve. With attack ads and the lack of dialogue that currently exists in Canada’s political structure, we have a long way to go before Canadians will finally feel like they’re being represented in Ottawa.

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