What attack ads actually attack

Elizabeth May

Here we go again. The Harper Conservatives are chafing at the bit, unable to wait until the writ drops before launching the latest round of attack ads.

The Conservative mantra is that they do not want an election, but their actions suggest they do. A minority government interested in maintaining the confidence of the House works in collaborative fashion. Remember the minority Liberals under Paul Martin? The budget preparations involved extensive consultations with the NDP. In fact, Jack Layton boasted that he had written the 2005 Liberal budget.

A Prime Minister in a Minority government preparing a budget should be meeting with Opposition leaders. The Finance minister should be doing the rounds with opposition finance critics. Key stakeholders should be getting a lot of time for their proposals to fight the deficit, while continuing economic recovery and creating full-time, well-paying jobs.

But collaboration and olive branches are not in Mr. Harper’s repertoire. Attack ads clearly are.

A lot of them were unleashed today. I think it sets a new record for political attack ads in one day. Some attack Jack Layton, with Gilles Duceppe thrown in as though he was some sort of Rasputin, cast as an evil side-kick. The primary villain in the Harper attack ad narrative is Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

Clearly Mr. Harper is in no mood to make Parliament work. These ads are the Parliamentary equivalent of a declaration of war.

On November 2, 2010, we issued a press release calling for the banning of political television ads. The worsening political climate in this country stems, in large part, from the nastiness of the political rhetoric found in attack ads. Learning that many countries around the world prohibit the airwaves carrying paid political advertising, it seemed we should at least raise the idea.

In that press release, I warned:

“We are on a very dangerous trajectory, as it is well understood in public opinion research that attack ads 'work' by reducing voter turn-out. Those who use attack ads have the goal of reducing voter turn-out. It is a deliberate strategy of their campaigns.”

Attack ads are anti-democratic by definition.

It turns out they are also anti-Canadian. Thanks to Toronto Star journalist Susan Delacourt’s blog "Ad standards" I read the plea from Advertising Standards Canada to political parties.

Political parties are exempt from “truth in advertising” requirements of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.

The Code says advertisements “must not contain inaccurate or deceptive claims….” And that they must not “demean, denigrate or disparage any identifiable person … or attempt to bring them into public ridicule.”

The ASC asked that “political parties adhere to the principles contained in the Code to help maintain public confidence in Canadian advertising.”

Attack ads are anti-democratic and anti-Canadian. So what are we to make of a Prime Minister who resorts to using the nastiest of slurs when the House is in recess, there is no election and there is work to be done?