COMMENTARY: One or Two Things Stephen Harper Never Learned in Kindergarten

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
May 21st, 2009

Watching TV and TV ads would, I suspect, rarely qualify as newsworthy events but this week a series of ads caught my attention and got me riled up. Every time they come on, they lead to a debate in our household. Not that I’m a big TV watcher by any stretch, but I do often watch the 6 o’clock news and if you’ve been watching TV, particularly in that time slot, you’ve probably seen the ads I`m talking about.

First on the docket, the latest round of the Conservative Party of Canada’s attack ads that are bashing Michael Ignatieff on a number of fronts, focusing mainly on the fact that he lived in the United States for a good chunk of his life. To preface this section of the story I’ll note that I’m not an Ignatieff supporter and my points around these ads are non-partisan and would remain the same regardless of the party that put them out. 

Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

So here I am munching away on some delicious BBQ’d chicken kabobs when the ominous “Don’t go outside on your own, there’s a murderer lurking in the shadows waiting for you,” horror movie music begins and I hear how evil Ignatieff is for living outside of the country and being engaged in the country he was residing in at the time.

After watching, mouth agape and chicken kabob slowly sliding off my fork into a plum sauce bath, I turned to my partner and asked, “Was there an election called that I didn’t hear about?”

While not entirely shocked that the Conservatives have fired up their negativity and defamation machine yet again, just as they spent a year during non-election times lambasting Stephane Dion repeatedly, our little family launched into a debate over just that issue (including our dog who thought the ad was a bit r-rough).

Clearly, the hope of the ad is to squash Ignatieff’s rising fortunes, as indicated by the various polls of late that show the Liberals, particularly in Quebec, gaining ground and surpassing the Conservatives in popularity. My concern about this sort of attack ad strategy is that, when I vote for and we as a people elect a government, they should be putting all of their effort towards governing the country and doing what is best for the people of the country and not putting their efforts into defaming their opposition.

Particularly in tough or “uncertain times” (as has become the catch phrase of late) I want my government working as hard as they can doing whatever they can to help the people of the country. Instead, it would seem we’re mired in a perpetual election with the focus squarely on saving the jobs of the government rather than working on protecting the jobs of the very people that gave you your job in the first place. Maybe this is a key piece of the Conservative Economic Stimulus package? They are certainly working hard on saving one job. That of the Prime Minister.

My worry is that average Joe Canuck takes these ads at face value and doesn’t ask the deeper questions or go to the crux of why the ads are coming out now. When I start thinking about it more deeply and what I consider to be my version of logically, I actually see these ads as working positively for the Liberals. The underlying message would seem to be we’re scared that we’re not doing enough to keep our jobs as the government, we’re not giving the people what they asked for and need and we don’t have enough good news of good things we’ve done to promote ourselves so we might as well promote the negative side of the opposing side`.

When we think about the timing of these ads and why they are out now, in addition to the shifting poll numbers I think about how the Liberals (following the Dion-led worst election showing in the party’s history) have a somewhat battered, financial troubled party. What better time than to spend, spend, spend on expensive dinner hour news ad time attacking your opponents when you know they don’t have the finances to fight back at the level you can attack. The underlying message here? ‘We have more money than any other party’.

Without an accurate figure on just what these ads cost, I can only imagine the high prices paid for the numerous spots in prime time aired across the country. In a time when finances are as tight as ever, governments across the country are steadily rolling into red ink, and with each passing month, unemployment figures grow to heights not seen in recent memory, is it prudent and fiscally responsible to spend such large amounts of money attacking one individual? For a party that campaigned against the other`s inciting fear in our hearts that the Green Shift or other policies might plunge our countries finances into peril, it would seem that millions of dollars are being wasted for nought. 

All of the above thoughts aside, I then asked myself, is this bashing of another individual with no particular purpose not slander or libel in some fashion. Maybe it was because I’ve recently watched Frost Nixon, but I couldn’t get that thought that , yes it’s illegal but not when the President (or Prime Minister in this case) does it. 

Looking into it further the Canadian Bar Association describes libel as “The type of defamation with a permanent record, like a newspaper, a letter, an e-mail, a picture, or a radio or TV broadcast. If you can prove that someone libelled you, and that person does not have a good defence then a court will presume that you suffered damages and award you money to compensate for your damaged reputation”

What about free speech you may ask. The law tries to balance these competing interests. Sometimes, even though someone made a defamatory statement that hurt a person’s reputation, the law considers other interests more important. The law allows the following defences for a person who makes a defamatory statement: Truth, Absolute Privilege, Qualified Privilege and Fair Comment.

Without getting too far into the legalese, it would appear that by slim margins these attack ads in non election times are legal. However, just as the fighting rather than governing that goes on in our government seems rather childish, it would seem another kindergarten lesson is to be learned from these attacks. 

Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Categories: Op/Ed

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