Ah, the whiff of gunpowder, the roar of cannon, the cama- raderie of the war room, and the thrill of seeing the enemy fall.
The suspension of all normal peacetime sense of honesty, propor- tion and respect for truth and your opponent is hardly news in the waging of real wars, but it has only lately become a feature of modern Canadian political election battles, and certainly reached its zenith in the recent federal Liberal election campaign.
The tactical elements of waging total war against the Conservatives almost totally dominated the Liberal strategy this time out.
The much discussed use by the Liberals of negative advertising to a degree unknown before in Canadian elections can best be understood in the same context.
After all, let’s call this what it is ”” propaganda, a mighty weapon in any war. Its aim has almost always been to dehumanize and create hatred and fear of the enemy. War propaganda almost always abuses truth and the negative advertising and Paul Martin’s fear- mongering about Stephen Harper in this campaign followed that rule.
The most blatant Liberal attack ads were so strong they were called a « smear » by some commentators. They used Iraq footage to underline the claim that Harper would have sent Canadian troops to Iraq, and ham- mered the claim that he was planning to launch checkbook health care, and limit a woman’s right to choose. The Liberals’ ongoing theme of Harper’s dangerous ”œhidden agenda” fits any definition of propaganda perfectly.
That Martin would permit the use of such distorting propaganda is surpris- ing since he subscribes to a discourse- centred vision of democracy and practises it (in peacetime at least) with his advisers, his cabinet, caucus and even the country, as we saw in his town halls leading to the Liberal lead- ership convention
I have to confess that I have been thinking long and hard about election campaigns as wars ever since I defend- ed the 1980 Trudeau ”œlow bridging” campaign in which we allowed little media access and rejected a leaders’ debate to ensure we retained absolute control of the message.
Twice I went in front of the cameras to defend our strategy. I said we had every right to control the flow of information in ”œwartime” ”” during a campaign ”” as distinct from normal peacetime.
The war analogy for political cam- paigns has haunted me ever since. It’s a revealing one, and I believe shines light into the dark corners of our cur- rent vote-getting processes.
The real tragedy is that it is arguable that the Liberal fear propaganda worked and helped them eke out a minority government. It’s not the first time their effectiveness has been proven. Michael Kirby in Election on the 1988 campaign, which he co-authored with Hugh Segal and Gerald Caplan, warned that the highly effective 1988 PC ads that directly attacked Turner had ominous implica- tions for future elections. They were phenomenally effective in moving votes back to the Tories in the last week of the campaign.
David Dunne of the University of Toronto writes that we paid lots of attention to the bombardment of vicious negative ads during the last elec- tion ”” and that the Liberal onslaught worked best. But he warns that « Voter turnout was lower than ever ”” not sur- prising if all options appear bad…If neg- ative advertising continues to dominate…we can expect voter turnout to continue to decline in future.”
We have to seriously consider these ominous warnings.
The scope of this challenge can only be understood if we appreciate the gulf that has grown between the generals, tacticians and well-trained mercenaries who actually plan and lead the wars that we call political campaigns, and the policymakers, party policy people, many candidates, even ex mandarins (often the keepers of the content of our civic society) who could actually provide the foun- dations for a more discourse-oriented campaign model.
And a word in defence of the tightly scripted 1980 Trudeau cam- paign ”” yes we did go after the Tory leader Joe Clark, and Trudeau enjoyed ridiculing his 18-cent gas-tax proposal and his being ”œheadwaiter to the provinces.” But we did not yield to the temptation to mount a negative televi- sion campaign against him, and Trudeau insisted that there be real pol- icy in every campaign speech.
Almost a quarter-century later, to imagine a political election cam- paign free of propaganda is perhaps to dream the impossible dream.
We could, however, at least stop being smug, stop pretending that prop- aganda-style negative advertising does- n’t work here, and that most campaigns are run by tacticians, not policymakers. We must face the fact that our federal political campaigns do increasingly sus- pend the normal constraints of our peacetime democracy and that the cost to our civic society may be far greater than we would like to admit.