We’re only at the end of Week 1 of the 2019 Alberta general election, and there is already much hand-wringing and angst about “negative politics” and “personal attacks.”
It illustrates an odd paradox in our political system: No one likes negative politics and those who engage in it will surely pay a political price for doing so, and yet everyone does it and it’s ever-present. So what gives?
Of course, part of the sales pitch in any campaign is laying out the case against your opponent, and those making the pitch have a vested interested in portraying their opponents in the worst possible light. Therefore “negative politics” are an inherent part of any election campaign.
Furthermore, the threshold for all of this is inherently subjective and largely dependent on one’s political leanings or allegiances. The bar is set either very high or very low, depending on whether your team is on the receiving end of such “attacks.”
Certainly, “personal attacks” should be out of bounds in even the most rough-and-tumble, elbows-up election campaign (which this may turn out to be). But it’s not a “personal attack” to say “don’t vote for so-and-so’s party” or “you can’t trust so-and-so.”
It would be a “personal attack,” for example, to invoke someone’s appearance, marital status, family, faith or sexual orientation as reasons to vote against them.
Therefore, we should strive to ensure the bar is set very high for what would constitute inappropriate “negative politics” or “personal attacks,” and refrain from lamenting or becoming preoccupied with the fact that candidates in an election are looking to frame their opponents on their terms.
What ultimately matters is not tone, but rather truth. If Jason Kenney or Rachel Notley is making a claim about the other’s views or record, we should care less about whether there’s a spiteful intent behind it but rather whether there’s actual evidence behind it.
Notley’s campaign kickoff last week (not to mention the various websites the NDP have created) included all kinds of rhetoric and claims about Kenney. Given that the polls show the UCP as the front-runners, of course the NDP are going to make it a priority to try to bring down their opponent. It’s also true to point out that the government’s record is not exactly spectacular and, as such, boasting of their accomplishments has limited political value.
But here’s an example of the sort of thing political leaders should be called out on: in drawing a contrast between her and her chief rival, Notley declared that when the new Calgary Cancer Centre opens, “you won’t need a credit card to get in.”
It’s an unfounded accusation, and the treatment of cancer patients doesn’t seem like the kind of issue that lends itself to casual political fearmongering.
Kenney has been in politics for a long time and was politically active before holding elected office. There is a lot he has said and a lot he has done, and it’s up to voters to decide what is relevant and what isn’t. It’s not out of bounds to cite previous statements or positions but, depending on the context, it may be of limited political value.
So while Kenney may claim to be “sad” about the NDP’s “attacks” on him — even going so far as to describe it as “U.S.-style attack politics” — it’s a little disingenuous in that he has certainly not held back in his assessment of Notley’s failures or what he sees as the NDP’s underlying philosophies that preclude them from being trusted with another four years in office.
I’d much prefer a campaign that focuses on policies and ideas, but let’s not be so naive as to think that we’re going to get a lot of nuance and goodwill between parties in an election campaign.
Let’s spare the pearl clutching about the tone of this campaign and devote more of those efforts toward fact-checking claims and calling out untruths.
“Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” airs weekdays 12:30-3:30pm on 770 CHQR