Skip to main content

Don Tapscott is the chancellor of Trent University.


Justin Trudeau's decisive election victory proved that negative attack ads don't always work. It also gives hope that a new generation of politicians can lead us from the hyper-partisan, rancorous and unproductive climate of today's democracy to a new era of thoughtful discussion, open government and productive action.

One remarkable aspect of his win is that the Liberals – at his insistence – refused to use negative advertising. He refused to use the tactic that is the cornerstone of virtually all contemporary political campaigns.

Just as they had done with previous Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, the Conservative Party launched a comprehensive attack-ad program many months before the election was called. The ads said Mr. Trudeau was "just not ready" to lead. They mischaracterized his platform, such as falsely asserting he proposed permanent deficits. One TV ad ridiculed his appearance, showing common folk sitting around a table commenting on his hair.

Politicians everywhere know that negative advertising is toxic to democracy, poisoning reasoned political debate and dumbing down the discussion. Its main goal is often not to win over voters but simply to suppress voting that could hurt them. Parties do this because pollsters tell them that such advertising works.

Mr. Trudeau stated from the beginning that he was going to focus on the issues and not play Stephen Harper's game. He built a campaign that engaged voters online and elsewhere and solicited their views. It appears that the electorate, particularly young people, saw through the negative messaging and Mr. Harper's campaign not only flopped, it backfired.

People were pumped by the Liberals' positive campaign. Voter turnout jumped to 69 per cent from 61 per cent in the 2011 election. An unprecedented number of voters turned out at advance polls, and voting on university and college campuses also set records. This is in stark contrast to electoral trends in the United States and other Western countries, where a growing number of citizens just aren't voting. Not since the dawn of universal suffrage in the established democracies have voters been angrier with their governors. Nor have so many citizens in so many countries acted on the bumper sticker exhortation: "Don't Vote! It Only Encourages Them!"

In particular, young people are looking for ways other than voting to bring about social change. This was the case in Canada in 2011, when only 35 per cent of youth voted. The upshot is an emerging crisis of legitimacy of our democratic institutions.

Which is why Mr. Trudeau's campaign was so significant. It showed that the cynical behaviour of politicians to achieve and hold onto power might actually be counterproductive. It's time for political leaders everywhere to follow in his footsteps and give a damn about democracy. To rebuild the public's trust in political institutions, elected officials need to embrace integrity, which is about honesty and consideration of the long-term interests of citizens and others.

Honest politicians establish trusting relationships with voters and they attempt to be truthful, not distort opponents' views. They must be accurate and complete in communications. They have regard for the interests, desires and feelings of others, especially the electorate. They don't kill important and deep political discussion with negative attack ads.

To restore legitimacy we need a new era of democracy based on integrity, active citizenship, and a culture of public discourse and participation. The Trudeau victory suggests that with a new generation of savvy voters, this may also be the way to win.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe