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Government House Leader Peter Van Loan speaks during Question Period on Dec. 2, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Government House Leader Peter Van Loan speaks during Question Period on Dec. 2, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Van Loan's defence of dirty tricks debases Tories and degrades democracy Add to ...

At least once a year for the last 20 or more, as a pollster, I’ve been asked “Why are young people so detached from our political parties?” or “What can we do to reverse the decline in voting turnout, especially among young people?”

Last May's election reminded us this problem is not going away on its own. Some days it seems like a pretty complex challenge. And then there are moments of great clarity, as there was in Ottawa this past week.

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For a while now, there’s been a dirty-trick rumour in circulation: that organized callers have been phoning Liberal MP Irwin Cotler’s constituents, leaving the false impression he is leaving politics and they would need a new MP soon.

Eventually, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan admitted that this was being done on an organized basis by the Conservatives. A sad, cynical enough moment in Canadian politics. Then he took cynicism to a new, jaw dropping level.

No mumbling the normal apologies about “overzealous workers, blah, blah, blah, won’t happen again, etc.” Instead, Canadians were told that this kind of grime should be considered vital free speech – and must be protected, not prevented, by our laws. Efforts to rein it in would have worse consequences than letting it continue. This was the sound of a politician who had left home without an ethical or moral compass that morning.

That this episode risks disappearing under the waves of the next 50 news stories is not surprising. But the story deserves more oxygen, more time in the spotlight.

This truly isn’t complicated. If our children tell lies about schoolmates, we punish them not shrug it off. When it happens on the Internet, we call it cyber bullying and bemoan how young people seem to have grown up without decent values. Conservative Christian groups presumably recognize this as something hard to square with the “Golden Rule.”

How exactly does this kind of behaviour, and its subsequent defence, fit within a party that wants to be known as the champion of law and order? I’m not suggesting the acts were illegal, only that it seemed the point of a law-and-order agenda was proclaiming a larger idea along the lines of “We conservatives get right and wrong.”

And this is wrong. Not clever, not amusing, not evidence of a more sophisticated political machine that works all the angles while others are asleep at the switch. Just wrong on every level.

That it might work is not an explanation of why it should be allowed – it's a great argument for why it shouldn’t. Mr. Van Loan’s position is the same as saying one shouldn’t outlaw lying because the next thing you know, someone will be trying to outlaw truth-telling. It’s insulting, it’s beneath this government, and I'm sure it is an embarrassment to many good people in the Conservative Party.

When these things happen, as inevitably they do, how about we use a simple question or two to decide what to do about them. Would we let our children do this kind of thing, or tell them it’s wrong? Can we realistically expect idealistic young people to become part of political organizations that think this kind of behaviour is ethical?

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