Home Page Election 2019 News Opinion Foreign Policy Politics Policy Legislation Lobbying Hill Life & People Hill Climbers Heard On The Hill Calendar Archives Classifieds
Hill Times Events Inside Ottawa Directory Hill Times Store Hill Times Careers The Wire Report The Lobby Monitor Parliament Now
Subscribe Free Trial Reuse & Permissions Advertising
Log In

A nasty, dishonest campaign? Blame the media 

By Susan Riley      

The threat lies south of the border where a crazed, but effective demagogue has turned lies into truth and the media into the enemy. We can’t let that happen here.

Nasty campaign: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer both share the same fear that the next election is going to be the most divisive and nasty one. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade
Share a story
The story link will be added automatically.

CHELSEA, QUE.—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is afraid the 2019 election campaign (which has already begun) is going to be “the most divisive and negative and nasty” in Canadian history. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer shares the same fear: “It’s going to get worse, it’s going to get nasty,” he warned Conservatives at a pre-campaign, campaign launch recently.

Both leaders are understandably dismayed. Such a shame they can’t do anything about it.

For his part, Trudeau promises “strong differentiation on issues of policy, but I will not engage in personal attacks and none of our team will, either.”

Nonsense, says Scheer, who reminds party faithful that Trudeau recently called the opposition “ambulance-chasing politicians” for criticizing the transfer of the convicted killer of eight-year-old Tori Stafford from regular prison to a healing lodge. Conservative ads claim Trudeau directed the remark at deputy-leader Lisa Raitt, but it was actually a more general smear.

But is Trudeau’s jibe—which he repeated after Question Period—a “personal insult,” or a sweeping partisan condemnation of those who would “exploit a terrible tragedy for political gain?” Does the distinction matter? And is the remark a sign of the degradation of political discourse, or simply insult-as-usual?

However the words are parsed, Commons Speaker Geoff Regan ruled the remark did not constitute unparliamentary language although he admonished members, not for the first time, to watch their tongues. The prime minister has been known to utter expletives in angry moments—he famously called Conservative MP Peter Kent a “piece of shit” in 2011, which was emphatically a “personal attack”—but he is normally scripted and impersonal, even in heated rebuttals in Question Period.

In fact, in September he apologized for having used the word “damn” the preceding day. The oath slipped out when the prime minister was promising not to use the members of the military like photo ops, “like the Conservatives did, every damn time.” A useful reminder, that “nasty” in the Canadian context is still, thankfully, some degrees removed from the daily trashing of reputations and scurrilous lies that disfigure U.S. politics in the era of Donald Trump.

While Scheer needles the prime minister frequently for his silver-spoon upbringing and scatters accusations of Liberal corruption like confetti (add that to the “sweeping generalization” category”), he, too, mostly refrains from direct personal shots. As a former speaker, he knows (or should) where the lines are drawn. In his view, it is Trudeau, not Conservatives, who constantly crosses the line. He calls out the prime minister, for example, for a “vile, personal attack” on a Quebec woman who heckled Trudeau at a summer rally—a woman who was subsequently shown to have ties to white nationalist groups.

Meanwhile, Scheer’s front bench—particularly MPs Pierre Poilievre, Michelle Rempel, and Candice Bergen—appears not to have received the memo about the need for a more civil tone.

Poilievre routinely torques the truth about the motive, impact, or morality of Liberal policy—all part of the game, however shameless. But he has also falsely accused Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau of manipulating tax policy to enrich his own family, which qualifies, at the least, as a “personal attack.”

Poilievre also defaults to the language of class warfare as avidly as any rabid Trotskyite, berating Trudeau for his “millionaire trust-fund” life. For instance, it emerged recently that the Trudeau family, living in a substantial brick home near Rideau Hall while 24 Sussex sits empty and dilapidated (through no fault of the prime minister’s), is having meals delivered from the kitchen at the old house. Poilievre accused Trudeau of having “two mansions—one to prepare his meals and another to eat them in.” It’s entertaining political theatre, but the implication that Trudeau is living “in the lap of luxury” is disingenuous (considering that all prime ministers enjoy the same perks.)

Another “scandal,” featured in Conservative ads, arose when Morneau was accused of calling Lisa Raitt a “Neanderthal.” The minister was defending his party’s pro-women policies to Raitt and declared that “we will drag along Neanderthals who don’t agree with that.” Raitt wasn’t his direct target; anti-feminist foot-draggers were. But the people who write these ads are not concerned with nuance.

In fact, much of the nastiness so deplored by Trudeau and Scheer emanates from the parties’ war rooms—unbeknownst to their virtue-signalling leaders, apparently. We’ve already had tasters from the Conservative side: torqued broadsides against various Liberal policies stamped Another Trudeau Failure. You sense a theme building.

That said, when the ads, or the invective, crosses a line, they can backfire. Back in 1993, the Conservatives lost ground after an ad that mocked Jean Chrétien’s mild facial paralysis. A later generation earned rebuke for a juvenile cartoon depicting then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion being pooped on by a pigeon. And, more recently, the Conservatives took down a posting criticizing Liberal immigration policy under a photo of a black man hauling a suitcase towards a border point, after accusations of racism. But it was only removed after the intended audience had, no doubt, seen it.

Liberal war rooms have been culpable, too—Paul Martin’s hyperbolic ad claiming that Stephen Harper was going to deploy “guns in the streets,” is one example; and, more recently, dismissing critics as Neanderthals is clearly contemptuous. But it is untrue that both sides are equally bad—at least so far.

Since the emergence of a more visceral right-wing in Canadian politics—from Harper, to Doug Ford, to Jason Kenney in Alberta—the usual partisan banter has become uglier, the misrepresentations more naked. The real impetus, however, is coming from the U.S. where the president’s constant, shameless lying and abusive name-calling appears to have caught the attention of Conservative political strategists here. Perhaps because it is working.

To point this out, especially for a journalist or pundit, is to invite accusations of bias from the right. We already heard that from Scheer, albeit mildly, when he told his followers “Trudeau will have the media, pundits and academics on his side.” This neatly ignores the talk radio tsunami of right-wing views, conservative voices on Twitter, and an offstage, alt-right, media that deplores Trudeau. Not to mention vigorous reporting of various Liberal blunders in the mainstream media. But the point for Scheer is not balance: the point is to cast “the media” as hostile to Conservatives, not to be trusted.

In fact, the greatest shadow overhanging the 2019 campaign isn’t Trudeau—who, despite his occasionally tart tongue, and hot temper, radiates earnestness and hope. It isn’t Scheer—a more brooding presence despite the dimples, but one lacking the lacerating fury of a Harper. The threat lies south of the border where a crazed, but effective, demagogue has turned lies into truth and the media into the enemy. We can’t let that happen here.

Susan Riley is a veteran political columnist who writes regularly for The Hill Times.

The Hill Times

Explore, analyze, understand
Inside Ottawa Directory – 2019 Edition
The handy reference guide includes: riding profiles, MPs by province, MP contact details, both Hill and constituency and more.

Get the book
Spinning History: A Witness to Harper’s Canada and 21st Century choices
An unvarnished look at the Harper years and what lies ahead for Canadians

Get the book
Sharp Wits & Busy Pens
Sharp Wits & Busy Pens, written by current and former Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters, tracks the evolution of political journalism in Canada

Get the book

Politics This Morning

Get the latest news from The Hill Times

Politics This Morning

Your email has been added. An email has been sent to your address, please click the link inside of it to confirm your subscription.

Nearly 100 new MPs offer new face of Parliament, including 60 in flipped seats

In many ways the incoming Parliament looks quite similar to its predecessor, with 240 returning MPs, the same number of MPs who are Indigenous or a visible minority, and 10 more women.

Rise of advance voting raising questions about impact on, and of, campaigns: experts

Almost 4.8-million Canadians voted at advance polls this year, according to Elections Canada estimates, a roughly 30.6 per cent increase over 2015, accounting for roughly one-quarter of all ballots cast this election.

Watchdog’s proposed minority Parliament rules ‘appalling,’ says legal expert

News|By Mike Lapointe
Democracy Watch says Governor General should speak with all party leaders before deciding who can try forming government, but Emmett Macfarlane says the confidence convention is the linchpin of the parliamentary system.

McKenna may be moved to new cabinet role after four years implementing Grits’ climate policies, say politicos

News|By Neil Moss
Catherine McKenna's 'tenure in environment would have prepared her well for any other kind of responsibility the prime minister may assign,' says former environment minister Jean Charest.

‘They went with what they knew’: Politicos react to Election 43

'If anybody should've won a majority, it should've been Trudeau. He didn't, and it's his to wear,' says CBC columnist Neil Macdonald of the Oct. 21 election results.

‘A clear mandate’: Trudeau wins second term, with voters handing Liberals a minority

News|By Beatrice Paez
Though not improbable, his victory was not inevitable. It brings an end to a nail-biting, gruelling 40-day slog that has exposed deepening rifts across the country.

McKenna wins re-election in Ottawa Centre, trumpets voters’ support for climate fight

News|By Neil Moss
'I’m so relieved,' Catherine McKenna said, about continuing with the Liberal climate change plan.

Election 2019 was a ‘campaign of fear,’ say pollsters

'There may well be a message to this to the main parties, that slagging each other will only take you so far,' says Greg Lyle.

Election 2019 campaign one of the most ‘uninspiring, disheartening, and dirtiest’ in 40 years, says Savoie

News|By Abbas Rana
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says she has never seen an election where mudslinging overwhelmingly dominated the campaign, leaving little or no time for policy discussion.
Your group subscription includes premium access to Politics This Morning briefing.