Accentuate the positive, but don’t eliminate the negative

Two weeks ago, Justin Trudeau was elected leader of the federal Liberal Party. The Conservative Party responded immediately by releasing the latest in its string of character-assassination ads against Liberal leaders.

Two weeks ago, Justin Trudeau was elected leader of the federal Liberal Party. The Conservative Party responded immediately by releasing the latest in its string of character-assassination ads against Liberal leaders. Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff both fell prey to savage personal attacks from Stephen Harper’s war dogs, but if the Trudeau ads are anything to go by, those dogs have shown up lame.

There’s already been plenty of discussion about the failure of the anti-Trudeau ads, which may even have resulted in an up-tick in Liberal support. Almost every news story on the ads mentions their flaws – that in one case Trudeau is quoted so wildly out of context as to render the attack laughable, while in another he is criticized for raising $1,800 for charity. Taking the high road, the Liberals have promised a clean campaign, which will avoid the negativity of attack advertising.

So in his first week as leader, Trudeau outwitted the Conservative attack apparatus that brought down his two predecessors. But his party’s promise to refrain from so-called negative advertising raises a broader question. When does advertising that’s critical of a party’s or a candidate’s record cross the line and become an attack ad? If the Liberals or the NDP were to release ads during the Labrador by-election reminding voters that the Conservative candidate had to resign his seat because he cheated on election expenses, would that constitute negative advertising?

The last point is moot: Peter Penashue has so little chance of being re-elected that it’s hardly worth spending money on TV ads attacking him. But the Conservative Party of Canada has been convicted of violating election financing laws in the past, and is under investigation for trying to subvert the last election. Though nobody has been convicted, the circumstantial evidence connecting the party to the robocalls affair is much stronger than, say for instance, the evidence tying the Liberal Party to the sponsorship scandal. Would it be underhanded of the opposition parties to use ads to point this out?

The province of British Columbia is in the midst of an election campaign, and while the governing Liberals have released attack ads, NDP leader Adrian Dix has chosen to accentuate the positive. Expressing concern about low voter turnout, Dix said, “We are not going to bring anybody back to politics by deciding the winner of an election is the person with the best ad agency to run the nastiest negative ads.”

Dix is the frontrunner by a wide margin, and it’s understood in political circles that while parties trying to catch up might need to go on the attack, a clear frontrunner’s best strategy is to appear statesmanlike and confident, and not to stoop to attacking the competition. Going positive is certainly a workable strategy; what’s less clear is whether it’s a good idea to wax pious about it. From now till election day, anything critical Dix says about Premier Christy Clark will be painted as negative campaigning, and a promise broken.

Clark has a lot to be held accountable for, and who will say that an election campaign is not the appropriate time to raise her record? As an example, the Liberals have used successive majority governments to prevent a proper enquiry into the scandal surrounding the sale of BC Rail. A cabinet minister at the time, Clark is at the centre of the controversy and it would be perfectly normal for opposition parties to raise this during an election. Would that be too negative for Dix?

Positive-campaigning piety is in danger of becoming trendy. It has never been proven that niceness among politicians is in the public interest. It’s all very well to eschew gratuitous personal attacks, but it’s crucial not to let the public believe you’ve sworn off attacking your opponents on their record. If the record says a politician is either a villain or a fool, there’s nothing negative about reminding the voters of that fact at election time.

If opposition parties use election advertising to attack Stephen Harper’s hair, his smile, or his delivery at the piano, in some way associating these irrelevant human ticks with his ability to govern, those will be attack ads, and the public will see them for what they are, and – let’s hope – reject them. If they use their advertising space to point out that Harper prorogued Parliament to avoid facing the truth about detainee abuse in Afghanistan, what principle is violated?

By all means let’s see an elevation in the level of political debate in this country. Let’s become a grown-up electorate and learn to ignore ridiculous attack ads that have nothing to do with policy. But let’s not expect politicians to refrain from attacking each other on their records, and let’s not ask them to mince words about it. Politeness is good, but it can’t be allowed to trump open and honest debate.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.