The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: negative ads

Over His Head

negativityOver two years out from the next federal election but the campaign has already begun, as the party leaderships are now clearly in place.  It didn’t commence when the Writ was dropped or the government fell, but by that first action that now seems to signal the coming electoral conflict in the post-democratic era – the negative ad.

We continue to hear that they are used because they work.  Even certain political pundits seem to kind of relish this battle of the combative airwaves, as if admiring the tactic.  They are smart writers and observers, and they know well enough that the goal is to suppress voter turnout, yet they continue to take a certain morbid delight in their use. They mused enough about the cause; now they should write about the effect.  It’s like the gladiators in the Roman Colosseum – a kind of bloody entertainment that actually said more about the decline of the empire than it did the ghoulish tastes of the spectators.  

The use of these most recent ads against Justin Trudeau is all about retaining power, not expanding democracy.  It’s the PM’s way of saying that we’re stupid.  He knows that by airing them that he fans his base, brings in tons of cash from supporters, and gets to spend the next two years framing his opponent.  The stupidity doesn’t come from the fact that we tolerate them as much as it results in moderate and progressive voters turning off and refusing to go to the polls.  He was correct on this in the past, but what it says about the head elected official of the land’s willingness to “dumb-down” the citizenry is more than just a bit troubling to consider.

One of the recent ads is about Trudeau’s being “in over his head.”  It surfaced a mere few hours after the leadership was decided.  This is an all-out war campaign, to be stretched out for 24 months, to convince Canadians that he’s too young to lead.  It troubles me a bit to do this, but let’s use that same litmus test on the Prime Minister himself.

Somehow, a year before this past recession began, he lost a $12 billion dollar surplus that was vitally needed for the upcoming economic downturn.  Under his watch, Canada lost its chance at a Security Council seat.  We lost our vaunted place in international rankings on everything from child poverty to food security.  The Prime Minister lost all of the momentum and goodwill that had been generated from the public apology to the aboriginal people.  He lost the battle against poverty.  We lost Kyoto and we lost any real opportunity for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to break out of the political traps and lift this country’s international reputation by putting the poor ahead of the Canadian corporate interest.

Then there has been the cost to politics itself.  Stephen Harper lost the confidence of the House twice and was found in contempt for the first time in our history.  He somehow lost a 250-page handbook on how Conservatives were to undermine parliamentary committees so that nothing could get accomplished – an embarrassing revelation.  The House of Commons has lost the ability to compromise under his watch.  We have misplaced democracy, lost trust, lost confidence, and in the process we have lost ourselves for a time as Canadians..

So, I’m kind of wondering about who really isn’t up for the job?  How could someone with such a record like that above, established over six years, dish the dirt on someone who only became a party leader not even a week ago?  Shouldn’t the barrels be turned in the opposite direction?

My personal answer to that last question is no.  Should Justin Trudeau ask me whether he should take such negative ads to Stephen Harper, I would say don’t do it.  It’s not because I’m a pie-in-the-sky ideologue.  It’s simple, hardl reality, and all parties do it. The more of these things we send out on the airwaves or in print, or the Internet, the more quickly we hasten our demise.  “Democracy never lasts long,” American founder John Adams said.  “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

The realistic facts of the case are that democracy is “murdered” by the countless character assassinations that precede any undermining of moral and popular authority.  Parties and their leaders have every right to run ads revealing the flaws in their opponent’s policy and practices.  Yet it is done most often not as a democratic duty, but as a way of winning an election.  What happens if we hold an election and nobody came?  We are now closer to that reality than at any other time in our history, and it’s not just because citizens are distracted or governments are inept; it’s because political parties have taken to the use of negative ads to suppress voter turnout, thereby robbing democracy of its true owners.

Any leader that supports such a strategy that belittles citizens instead of elevating them should hardly use the “over his head” slogan to describe another when he has been unable to manage the complexities of a robust democracy that we are clearly at risk of losing.

Get ’em While They’re Young

Yesterday I spoke about politics to a joint gathering of two grade five classes at St. Martin’s school in London’s Old South district. I had promised I would do it before I knew there was an election but felt I couldn’t break the commitment. I was to talk for a few minutes then permit them to ask questions.

These were keen young minds and their questions covered a wide range of subjects. It was great … until near the end. One student near the back stuck up his hand and asked: “What is Mr. Ignatieff like?” I was about to answer when he added: “Is it true he’s never lived in Canada?” Both teachers grew quickly uncomfortable, as was I, but I did my best to answer. A couple of questions later another boy asked: “Is it true he’s only doing this for himself?” A couple of similar questions were asked in short order.

When it was over, a talked to a couple of the questioners on their way out the door, asking where they got these ideas. Television, of course. I could see the sadness on their teacher’s faces. This was a keen young group, but somehow the Conservative attack ads had descended to the level of grade fives and already coloured their thinking.

Now, as they read these words, some staffers in the PMO will be spinning with glee. It’s proof positive for them that negative advertising even reaches the young. Personally, I find it disgusting. I don’t like negative ads in any form – that’s no secret – and I’m aware that at certain times all parties cross the line. But no one does it like the Conservatives; it’s an art and a Machiavellian craft they are committed to for the duration.

Like so many other characteristics at present, what this says about our political system is discomfiting. The government doesn’t let opposing young minds into their political rallies but it actually teaches them to be negative before they’re even done primary school. The best of governments teaches the young to believe and hope, to use objective reasoning as they journey through life. Yet the Conservatives are luring them like some Pied Piper towards negativism and ignorant belief. Albert Einstein once observed:

“Youth is the first victim of war; the first fruit of peace. It takes 20 years or more of peace and learning to make an adult; it takes only 20 seconds of war to destroy him.”

Well, if yesterday’s class was any example, we have a government that is willing to accept young minds as collateral damage in a political war bent on the pursuit of a majority. It is the worst of all possible outcomes, the most destructive of all adult choices.

I was asked a couple of years ago by a reporter what I would put forward as my first Private Members Bill (these are chosen by a lottery system and my opportunity hasn’t yet been arisen). I had only been in it for two years but I knew the answer immediately – not aid for Darfur or even better assistance for those in poverty. No, I stated that it would be a bill that would put an end to all negative advertising between elections. I was quickly gaining the understanding that negative ads mould young and older alike, rendering it more difficult for students to engage in the public process with the objective skills required to become effective citizens. Every teacher in the land should raise their voice against such ignorant practices.

Yesterday I informed those kids that Michael Ignatieff is one of the finest men I know. I should never have had to even undertake the effort; students would be right to believe that those seeking to be PM would be honourable. The very reality that one leader would okay millions to be spent for an entire two years in order to retain power by eviscerating an opponent with untruths, despoiling the minds of even grade fives is one of the most sinister developments of our modern Canadian politics. And for you PMO types delighted with yourselves – shame on every one of you who devised such a sinister plan.


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