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Attack ads hurt voters most

by Canadian University Press February 15, 2011
Attack ads hurt voters most

Karl Rove was instrumental to George W. Bush’s electoral success. Photo by Flickr

by Michael Penney
The Muse (Memorial University of Newfoundland)

ST. JOHN’S (CUP) — As the federal government prepares to table its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Canada’s political heavyweights have begun throwing punches over corporate tax cuts and stealth fighter jets.

While party leaders have stated they would like to steer away from an election, new attack ads produced by the Conservatives imply the possibility of a political showdown. The ads focus on the leadership deficiencies of Michael Ignatieff, including his time living outside Canada. This demonstrates the escalation of negative attack ads, a technique already perfected by our neighbours to the south. Playing dirty seems to be part of an accepted platform in American politics.

Republican spin-doctors like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove wrote the playbook on negative campaigning as a cornerstone of electoral politics. The approach is basic but brutal: Use any conceivable trick at a party’s disposal to drag the reputations of political opponents through the mud. It revolutionized the perception of political marketing and set a new tone in the competitive process that is at the very core of Canadian federalism.

Plenty of examples demonstrate how Canadian politics have been influenced by this strategy, one used with varying degrees of success.

During the 1993 federal election campaign, the Progressive Conservatives were trailing considerably in public opinion polls. Worn down by a series of unpopular moves orchestrated under Mulroney’s watch, the Tories decided to respond by smearing Liberal leader Jean Chrétien.

They decided to highlight Chrétien’s facial deformity in a televised ad. The ad got significant coverage and appeared on a number of news broadcasts, creating considerable uproar among Canadian voters. Leading Tory strategists like Allan Gregg faced harsh criticism over their Republican-styled tactics.

In the 2006 federal election, the Liberals released a series of attack ads in an attempt to paint Stephen Harper as a right-wing extremist. They used a series of questionable quotes — often taken out of context — that focused on his desire to increase military presence in major Canadian cities, and his personal inclination to rid the health care system of women’s abortion rights.

A party’s survival depends on donations money and subsidies received from party funding. We shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars from the public purse to squeeze out negative ads that attempt to push wedge issues instead of legitimate policy discussion. If political parties want to change public perception and sway voters, it should be done with some basic decency and accuracy.

Let’s ensure that political advertisements focus on the substance of national concerns and not the personalities of our political figures. Public policy is the framework of our society, and negative campaigning should be removed from the political blueprint.

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2 comments

ericdeguire February 20, 2011 - 16:45

Politics is the art of the possible. If attack ads work, they will be used. If the voters don’t like them, they should voice their opinion by sanctioning parties who use attack ads. If a politician feels he is being wrongly attacked he should make his case to the voters, who are the final deciders.

As to what concerns taxpayer funding of political parties, there’s one solution: abolish it. Political parties should raise their own funds, they would be more accountable to their donators and taxpayer dollars would go towards policy objectives not electoral ones.

There is no need to forbid attack ads and regulating that would be overly complex. Anyhow, political ads already have to go through a government agency before being broadcast to make sure they do not contain any utter lies. The reality is attack ads exist, and as long as voters keep electing parties that use them, they will continue to exist.

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Christopher February 26, 2011 - 17:06

I have to disagree with you about taxpayer funding: we do not want political parties that are accountable to their donors and lobbyists, because this leads to a government that legislates on behalf of its lobbyists rather than its voters. It’s exactly this sort of thing that’s turned the USA into the corporate welfare state that it is.

We need political parties that are accountable to the electorate. Tying party funding to the number of votes they received, limiting private donations and banning corporate donations are some of the best things to have ever happened in Canadian politics. Our parties are now funded by both the grassroots (individual donations) and electorate at large (taxpayers). If there was only one good thing Jean Chretien accomplished it was that.

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