Recent days in Canadian politics have been filled with attacks, counterattacks and apologies. Attacking is an essential part of politics, but it also has limits, beyond which attacks backfire on the attacker. Here are some guidelines:
If an attack is completely false, it will backfire. The Conservative "10 per center" criticizing New Democrat Peter Stoffer for supporting the long-gun registry led to an apology because Mr. Stoffer has, in fact, voted the other way. Voters can stomach factoids, ambiguity, half-truths and statements ripped out of context, but they rebel against demonstrably false accusations.
Politicians cannot go after non-politicians. Defence Minister Peter MacKay was widely condemned for his stinging attacks on diplomat Richard Colvin's credibility, and the government quickly switched to a strategy of letting military personnel and senior civil servants differ with Mr. Colvin. Canadians see politicians as gladiators who dish it out and take it in equal measure, but who should not pound on non-combatants.
Similarly, attacks on entire groups backfire. Conservative MP Gerald Keddy had to apologize for referring to unemployed Haligonians as "no-good bastards sitting on the sidewalk." The Liberals, meanwhile, hurt themselves late in the 2006 federal election campaign when they released a television ad saying that a Conservative policy for urban military bases would put "soldiers on our streets." Though probably not intended that way, it seemed like an attack on Canadian Forces personnel.
When politicians engage each other, the rules of engagement are looser but still have limits. Body image is out of bounds. Two Liberal MPs recently had to apologize for mild comments about a Conservative MP's weight problems. Think also of the Conservatives' "pooping puffin" Internet ad in the 2008 campaign. For news junkies remembering Michael Ignatieff's bizarre comment about puffins hiding their excrement, it was a funny inside reference to Mr. Ignatieff's rivalry with Stéphane Dion, but it was withdrawn because it was disrespectful to Mr. Dion's body image.
The classic case is the Progressive Conservatives' 1993 attack ad showing pictures of Jean Chrétien's face and asking, "Is this a leader?" In a brilliant riposte, the Liberals spun it as making fun of Mr. Chrétien's facial palsy, and the hapless Kim Campbell had to apologize.
Indeed, all personal characteristics now seem off limits. An assistant to Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith had to apologize when he tweeted sarcastically about Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach's Ukrainian accent. The tweet was unacceptable because an accent is an extension of the body. (Mr. Stelmach, in fact, doesn't have an accent.)
A somewhat parallel case took place in 2004, during the Conservative leadership race. Party officials not involved in the campaign put out a prewrit radio ad using a Caribbean accent to make fun of Paul Martin's reflagging of cargo ships to Caribbean countries. A philosopher might question why the Conservative Party was attacking entrepreneurship, but, instead, the humorous use of an accent became cause for offence, and the ads were quickly pulled.
References by politicians to race, ethnicity or religion almost always backfire, except for attacks on evangelical Christians, who seem to be considered fair game. (The Liberals never suffered for disparaging Stockwell Day's religious beliefs.) But, in general, race is to contemporary Canadians what sex was to Victorian moralists, and politicians who even hint at race or related characteristics such as ethnicity and religion are courting backlash.
The most recent case in point is the Conservative "10 per center" saying that representatives of the Liberal government "willingly participated in the overtly anti-Semitic Durban I" conference on racism in 2001. The Liberals turned that into a plausible claim that the Conservatives were accusing them of anti-Semitism and are now seeking an apology through House of Commons procedures. Whether they get their apology, they have fought to a draw and perhaps even gained the advantage in this little struggle.
All of these cases illustrate not moral precepts but simply rules based on observation. Short of outright lies, politicians can say almost anything about a political opponent's policies, honesty and integrity, but they had better stay away from body type and ethnic identity, and they certainly should take it easy on non-politicians.
Indeed, these are relatively superficial rules of conduct. Isn't it worse for the Liberals to call Stephen Harper a liar ("hidden agenda") or the Conservatives to call Michael Ignatieff a poseur ("just visiting") than to make fun of someone's weight or accent? Apparently not, if we observe the contemporary practice of Canadian politics.
Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.