A private member’s bill that would require federal party leaders to attach their names to negative television ads is a well-meaning effort to get politicians to play nice, but it is unnecessary and will likely fail to make a useful difference. Canadian voters have already shown they are capable of dealing with attacks ads without having their hands held by Elections Canada.
The notion of making party leaders take personal responsibility for attack ads is a popular one in the wake of a Conservative TV spot that tried to portray the newly anointed Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, as being too inexperienced and insubstantial to be prime minister. The ad used footage of Mr. Trudeau doing a mock striptease at a charity event, made fun of him for a mustache he had grown as part of another charity effort, and included a clip of him from an old television interview that was deliberately edited to put words in his mouth. The over-the-top confection was met with an immediate backlash, and subsequent polls showed that it had done more harm than good to the Conservatives.
This is ample proof that voters are capable of rejecting negative ads that are unfair or deliberately distort the truth. The fact that the Conservative Party leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, did not say, “I am Stephen Harper and I approve this ad” at the end of it in no way insulated him from the backlash.
The truth is, negative ads work, because they exaggerate existing fears about the character or abilities of political candidates. Voters respond to attack ads when the attacks don’t get personal and are based on a grain of truth. Negative ads are a legitimate part of a campaign arsenal, not to mention a legitimate form of free expression.
Furthermore, the United States has shown that forcing candidates to endorse negative ads does nothing to reduce the number of them. President Barack Obama’s campaign used a record number of negative ads in the 2012 general election, and President Obama’s voice was heard at the end of every one taking credit.
The Conservatives successfully used negative ads to define two recent Liberal leaders – Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff – in ways that doomed their campaigns. So it’s not surprising that it is a Liberal MP, Kevin Lamoureux, who has tabled a bill to amend the Elections Canada act and require party leaders to endorse all party ads, negative or positive. The Liberals are looking for some relief, but attempting via U.S.-style legislation to force their feared opponent to sign his name to every Tory jab will be less useful than responding with ads of their own that are critical of the Harper government in vivid and convincing ways. Canadians know who to blame when a political party takes a cheap shot, and it’s not Elections Canada.