No one wants an election is the mantra making the rounds of the hallowed halls of Ottawa. We’re assured that neither the Conservatives, the Liberals, the NDP nor the Bloc Québeçois are keen on forcing Canadians to the ballot box.
But if this is so, why does it seem that all the parties are acting like they are anticipating a spring federal election? Michael Ignatieff was on the road promoting the Liberal brand in key ridings, as was the NDP’s Jack Layton, and the Conservatives most recent spate of attack ads is a good indication that something is afoot in the nation’s capital. The only faltering step in the run-up to an election resulted from the backlash against that series of Tory ads.
The perversity of the ads was so deplored that someone in the Conservative hierarchy finally arrived at the reasonable conclusion that they were idiotic at best and bad strategy at worse, and ordered their withdrawal before they were aired as paid political TV advertisements. But before they were pulled, full versions of the ads were placed on the Tory website and from there flowed out to the public via newsrooms across the land.
What was quickly determined in most quarters was that they were prime examples of extremely poor taste that took comments from Ignatieff completely out of context in vain attempts to prove some outlandish outrages allegedly perpetrated by the Liberal leader.
No one believes Prime Minister Stephen Harper had anything to do with the ads. The ads had to have been the work of some misguided souls working behind-the-scenes while gearing up for an election campaign in the Tory war room.
Later, Tory officials told the media that the ads were a one-day test and were never intended to be broadcast. In effect, the claim was that a toe was dipped in the political water and the water was found too hot to go for a swim.
There’s no reason to believe that the Conservatives are any more mean-spirited than the Liberals or NDP. And at any given time, every party is prone to make disastrous mistakes, varying only in their intensity. A prime example is the Québec sponsorship scandal during the Chrétien Liberal administration, which dogged his successor, Paul Martin, and proved to be a contributing factor to the Grits’ loss to the Harper-led Conservatives.
The recently-pulled attack ads’ perversity was explained best by Gerry Nichols, a friend of the prime minister and Conservative Party member, who took over from Harper as the head of the National Citizens’ Coalition. He wrote in his blog that the ads looked like they had been “dreamed up in about five seconds by a bunch of drunken frat boys. The end result could be to hurt the Tories more than the Liberals. Running attack ads is always risky and ads that clearly go over the line usually backfire. See the Tory attack ad mocking Jean Chrétien’s facial features in 1993.”
During the federal election campaign in 1993, the Kim Campbell-led Tories released an ad which mocked Chrétien’s facial paralysis. Some among the group running the Conservative campaign may have thought the ad was funny, but neither Chrétien nor Canadians were not amused. Chrétien took the high ground and used the ad to his advantage by turning his affliction into an asset during the campaign, with the result that the Tories were trounced at the polls and relegated to just two seats in the House of Commons.
Attack ads are more a major component of American politics that are invariably sneered at by Canadians, who pride themselves in having enough sense to see through the disingenuous claims made by such ads.
“That’s not how we do politics in Canada!” is a common refrain.
But the sad reality is that we are heading more and more in the direction of the American model of vicious politics. And as the election approaches, the viciousness can only get worse. It’s a sign of the times.
Who really believes that because Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff lived and worked in the U.S. and Britain, he is a lesser Canadian, as some attack ads imply. Since when is working in a foreign land deemed as a disqualification when seeking public office. Even Barack Obama lived overseas (Indonesia) and still was elected to the U.S. Senate and to his nation’s highest political office, the presidency. For that matter, are the tens of thousands of Canadians who live and work in foreign countries any less Canadian when they return home? Is the fact that “Michael Ignatieff is back in Canada,” as one Tory ad claimed something to fear?
Yet, attack ads sometimes work, even in Canada. A recent Ipsos-Reid poll revealed that 50-per-cent of respondents believe Ignatieff “is not a leader,” which is a statement directly from a 2009 Tory attack ad.
Ignatieff’s leadership capabilities are a tempting target, and the Tories have every right to exploit what they see as a weakness in the Liberal Party’s attempted return to political power.
The Conservative website announcing the release of the ads, labeled Ignatieff as “opportunist,” which justified the launch of “a national television advertising campaign.”
According to the January 17 release: “Canadians should be in no doubt: the opportunistic Ignatieff has decided that an election this Spring is his best hope of becoming Prime Minister.
“Again, we restate our opposition to an election at this time, However, prudence demands that we cannot ignore Michael Ignatieff’s intentions.”
Another attack ad accused NDP Leader Jack Layton as possessing “blind ambition,” since he would make deals with the separatist Bloc. “He did it before, he’ll do it again — and Canada will pay the price,” is the warning from the Tories. Other ads tell Canadians to beware of Ignatieff’s desire to reform the Liberal-NDP coalition with the Bloc. Despite the Tory claims, Bloc MPs were never a part of the coalition — they simply promised to vote with the coalition for 18 months — and it was Ignatieff who actually pulled the Liberals out of the coalition originally organized by former Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and Layton.
There is a good reason for the Tories to begin an attack ad campaign — the polls show they’ll win the next election, but the same polls also indicate they can only claim another minority in the House of Commons. How to gain that elusive majority? Their strategists apparently believe the only available option is to not pull back any punches.
Get ready Canada.
Whether you like it or not, the parties, despite their protests to the contrary, are warning you that a no-holds-barred election battle is nearing.