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.
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