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bruce anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

No sooner did I say, on national TV, that Canadians were going to see more Jekyll and less Hyde from the federal Conservatives this year, than they proved I was out to lunch.

This week's tone as the Prime Minister returned to the House of Commons made me sense that he had given up snarling, at least for 2015. Irrational exuberance, as it turned out.

No matter what party is in office, I wish a Canadian Prime Minister wouldn't stand up in the House of Commons and say the kinds of things Stephen Harper chose to say to opposition leaders earlier this week.

In answering a question from Thomas Mulcair about Canada's mission in Iraq, he suggested that New Democrats feel compassion for jihadist killers, and indifference to Canadian troops.

Appalling accusations, and beneath the office of the Prime Minister. This is someone he hugged in solidarity, mere weeks ago. Back then: "We may be across the aisle from one another, but when faced with attacks on the country we all love and the things we all stand for, I know we will all stand together." This week: "I know the opposition thinks it's a terrible thing that we're actually standing up to jihadists. I know they think it's a terrible thing that some of these jihadists got killed when they fired on the Canadian military."

Similarly, the Prime Minister didn't like a line of questioning from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau about income splitting tax changes. He could have used the question to proclaim the merits of his tax break and resume his seat. But he thought better of that, and took aim below the belt.

He commented on the fact that Mr. Trudeau inherited money when his father passed away. As though the Conservative Party considers receiving an inheritance some sort of character handicap, and that anyone on the receiving end of a bequest should just shut up and let others decide things?

I know. The jaded and cynical will say: politics is a blood sport, toughen up. But the jaded and cynical are the problem. Following their lousy advice has coarsened our politics, driven away good potential candidates, and caused a steady decline in turnout at elections. Moreover, privately, pretty much any politician I've talked to in the last decade bitterly laments this race to the bottom, and yearns for leadership that will set a different tone, a better standard.

So what makes it so hard to turn things around?

One newish reason is the bad chemistry that happens when you mix rabid partisanship and a social media platform like Twitter.

On any given day, Twitter does a lot of good. A fine example this week is the #BellLet'sTalk campaign to promote a more open approach to mental illness. Does it matter how much money it raises? Not to me. It promotes thoughtfulness and compassion. It reminds us there are people who need our help, but are afraid to say so. It encourages policy makers to embrace their responsibilities to help, too.

I appreciate social media, including Twitter, for the sense of community it can build.

But when it comes to politics, Twitter can also create some pretty nasty neighbourhoods. Places where the ultra-cynical come to spit and spew, often hiding behind fake names, making juvenile arguments, and indulging in pathetic name-calling. There are lots who hate Liberals, or New Democrats, and many who hate Conservatives. Some loathe the media.

If you wander into this neighbourhood, you'll find a seething, stinking place. And it's getting worse. For people who get up in the morning hoping to insult others, success is about shock value and provocation. Ignore them and they come back with a worse insult. Reveal annoyance and they'll double down, overjoyed at the thought they've drawn blood.

And so the floor keeps getting lowered.

Stephen Harper is probably appalled at some of the things that are said about him on Twitter. He should be – there's a lot of awful garbage thrown his way.

But as the politician with the biggest podium in the country, he has a lot to do with setting the tone and the standard for political discourse. He can deliver an argument with style, wit, incisiveness and impact. But he also knows how to get the blood boiling among the angriest people in his party.

So "to be clear," as the PM likes to say, it's a choice.

It's possible that Mr. Harper and Conservative strategists see merit in lighting up their most hostile partisans, as this week's call to invective did. Maybe they believe it will scare and demoralize their opponents and improve turnout among their base.

But what this Conservative Party needs to win re-election isn't more evidence that it likes to travel on the low road. Or that this Prime Minister is capable of insults.

Through the fall and beginning of winter, Mr. Harper's approval ratings were on the rise, and his party more competitive as a result. The question now is whether he can stick with an approach that was working, or revert to a style that wasn't.