The key question that looms over contemporary Canadian politics is this: Do you need to behave horribly in order to get elected? The answer is: No, but it sure seems to help.
For the past number of years we’ve witnessed the institutionalization of the so-called “permanent campaign” in our federal politics. This phenomenon has two aspects. First, a constant, hyper-partisan effort to demonize opponents’ motives and mobilize one’s own voting base. Second, a willingness to employ these tools in that time between elections that political professionals refer to as the “non-writ period.” Taken together it amounts to a simple credo: Take cheap shots and take them all the time.
It is important to note there is no inherent partisan claim to this recipe. Certainly, any party is capable of employing these tactics. In a former life, I’ve served as a senior official in campaigns that unapologetically (and quite effectively) mounted pre-writ negative advertising. I’ve seen people take part in anonymous literature drops intended to cast aspersions on their opponents. And arguably, the big bang moment of Canadian political cynicism occurred when Pierre Trudeau performed his bald-faced pivot on wage and price controls.
But objectively speaking, no political party has proclaimed its affection for the permanent campaign with a more full-throated roar than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Borrowing generously from the great democratic laboratory to our south, where elections are ubiquitous and confidence in Congress is at all-time nadir, micro-voting strategies dominate the day. Demon dialers, patch technology, push polls and astroturfing are the new arsenal of today’s political warfare.
And what one party introduces with success, others will surely soon mimic. All this creates an irresistible sprint toward lower standards. A race to the bottom where, no matter who wins, voters end up losing.
Even in this context, the recent example of what occurred in the Quebec riding of Mount Royal threatens to establish a new low. Pollsters calling into the constituency reportedly left the impression that sitting MP Irwin Cotler is set to resign – something the MP denies.
In responding to the matter, the Speaker of the House of Commons termed the practice “reprehensible” – a charge that Nick Kouvalis, principal of Campaign Research, the polling firm involved, rebuffed energetically when he appeared on CTV's National Affairs. The strategist also offered a spirited justification of his company’s political work, invoking a brand of “you-tooism” to suggest that all parties are equally complicit, albeit perhaps not equally skilled in these modern black arts. He also boasted openly and accurately that he gets winning results for his clients. Fair enough.
Still, when Mr. Kouvalis ended the interview by insisting that even I would use his company in the face of an election, I was forced to reply with an immediate and definite no.
Here’s why: We are fouling our own nests. Political professionals are pursuing a course of conduct that is causing tangible trauma to the body politic. Voter apathy is at an all-time high. Turnout at the ballot box is at an all-time low. And people regard their political leaders unjustly in terms usually reserved for those facing prison time.
Blame Nick Kouvalis and his ilk if you like. But that would be unfair. They merely respond to what we, as a political culture, tolerate. The real sin lies in permitting a system that incentivizes misbehavior and disrespect.
There is a remedy: Political parties must constrain their own impulse toward excess. If campaign strategists favour military analogies, then let us consider the possibility it is time for an armistice.
Prior to the next election, a public compact should be joined by all major political parties – a voluntary but mutually binding agreement. It need not overreach or be so ambitious that it defies reasonable concurrence. It should be kept short and simple to encourage implementation.
It could begin with three succinct principles. First, no pre-writ advertising will be conducted but for the obvious exception of by-elections. Second, statements that are knowingly untrue will not be made or repeated. Third, partisan calls to households must be placed by live persons not computerized technology or robo-dialers.
That's it. In the future, perhaps we'd add to this list. Certainly fundraising and campaign finance must be more objectively overhauled. But as a point of departure, this initial gesture would demonstrate some commitment to halting the descent of our politics into the realm of pure muck and mud. And, importantly, it would signal that political parties will abide by a set of standards that aspire above and beyond the meagre measure of not being unlawful.
That’s not naïve. Or unrealistic. Or too much to expect. And if you think it is then, frankly, you just might be part of the problem.
Scott Reid, a former director of communications to prime minister Paul Martin, is co-host of CTV’s National Affairs and a principal Feschuk.Reid