Federal Election

Voters fatigued by constant negativity

Photo: Conservative Party of Canada

If you’ve been paying attention to the current federal election campaign, chances are that you’ve seen the Conservative ad mocking Justin Trudeau at least once. You’ve seen the office setting, and heard the cringeworthy “Nice hair, though”. The ad ends by  concluding that he’s “just not ready” to lead in the political arena.

While this particular ad seems rather tame by today’s standards, it’s indicative of a growing nastiness within Canadian politics. Attack ads in this election not only target parties’ policies, but the leaders of the parties as well. It’s one thing to attack someone’s policies or ideas—it’s another thing entirely to directly attack their character or personality.

Consider  the “just not ready” ad, where the Conservatives manage to accomplish both.  Trudeau’s policy proposals are characterized as amateur, and are depicted as a reflection of who he is as a politician and a person—an immature rookie.
Attack ads such as these are particularly mean-spirited, in that they try to completely denigrate a candidate’s character, in addition to their political abilities. This new approach  will likely serve to further alienate Canadians from participating in the political process and reinforce the stereotype of politics being a nasty, dirty business.

In fact, it may already have helped in doing so—Voter turnout consistently reached at least 70 per cent from 1957 to 1992, but dropped all the way to 58.8 per cent in 2008, and 61.1 per cent in 2011. While there are likely a number of factors at play, the possible correlation between increases in both negative political campaign tactics and voter disengagement is hard to ignore.

It’s interesting to note that in many European countries, there are fairly strict regulations on political messaging. In the UK, Ireland, and Switzerland, there are bans on attack ads and both the UK and Ireland had higher voter turnout rates in their last elections than Canada.  In other countries, such as Japan and Australia, electoral regulations discourage negative ads against candidates and parties.

Perhaps it’s time that Canada brought in similar regulations. If the public were presented with fair political advertising, it would go a long way towards changing our perceptions of the political process in general. In the mean time, all of the political parties should take a moment to think about the  message they’re sending with their ads.  If Canadian politicians want to inspire intelligent discussion and optimism, they would do well to drop the negativity from their campaigns.