Partisan Attack Ads Play Fast and Loose with the Truth

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Ever since notorious American political strategist Karl Rove managed to save George Bush and the Republicans’ presidential hopes by successfully portraying their Democratic opponent — war hero John Kerry — as a snivelling coward, using a series of what are now commonly referred to as attack ads, every politician knows that truth can sometimes be a hard sell. Rove himself often said the truth was irrelevant in such political messaging, and coined the phrase “community-based reality” to suggest there was an alternative. Many years later, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” did much the same.

Several observers have noted that Rove and Conway, and in fact Trump himself, were actually “taking a leaf out of the playbook of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s infamous minister of propaganda” who once declared “if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth.” [i]  But Nazi Germany was no democracy, and no one really expected Goebbels to tell the truth. Rove and Conway, by contrast, were operating in what many once considered to be a leading light among western democracies. Yet the past decade has seen many previously unimaginable changes for the worse in Canada’s neighbour to the south, and attack ads must be considered to have played a significant role in the unravelling of democratic norms and practices.        

Much has been written about attack ads and the potential damage they cause in democracies, but the fact remains that their use is increasing because they are generally successful in influencing voters. Simply put, attack ads work. 

This is especially relevant during election campaigns, as Rove demonstrated. There is little time for the target of such ads to take steps to correct any misconceptions. Stephen Harper’s decision to invite Rove to speak to the Conservative caucus in Ottawa, shortly after their 2006 electoral victory, was no accident. Rove’s advice was a succinct message: “Hit the Liberals when they are down.” Among many other things, that message led to a decade of attack ads in advance of and during election campaigns, ads whose aggressive tone and personal content were unprecedented in Canada.  

But while the use of attack ads during election campaigns is now old news, the regular use of such ads by opposition parties and governments between elections is not, at least in Canada. Still, the desire to win elections is strong, and attack ads have shown that a less arduous way for opposition parties to gain public support is to attack their opponents, rather than working hard to provide a credible alternative of their own. Such ads are even becoming more prevalent when politicians in power find themselves in trouble. With their public support plummeting it seems much easier to find scapegoats, legitimate or not, rather than defend their own actions.

Of course the tendency to engage in partisan jibes has always been part of the political culture in most western democracies, including Canada. But with the advent of attack ads it has evolved into an increasingly dangerous practice in recent years, as more and more politicians appear willing to ignore facts entirely in their pursuit of votes. In addition to outright lies, voters are increasingly bombarded with deliberately misleading statements featuring highly selective or incomplete information. Put another way, the partisan tendency to criticize has morphed into a tendency to invent the basis for that criticism.

Sadly this type of dangerous deception is on the rise in Canada as well.  Faced with declining oil revenues and unhappy Albertans resenting cuts to services, Alberta premier Jason Kenney launched another seriously misleading attack on the federal equalization program, (a program whose current formula he conveniently failed to mention that he had approved as a minister in the Harper cabinet), incorrectly claiming it represents a major source of potential revenue the province loses to the federal government. Similarly Ontario premier Doug Ford, unwilling to introduce climate change policies of his own, launched a $4 million ad campaign attacking the federal carbon pricing plan as a major new tax on Ontario consumers, while conveniently failing to mention they would receive rebates directly from the federal government, and forcing gas stations in the province to display anti-carbon tax stickers at the pumps until the measure was ruled illegal.

Not even a global pandemic has limited the use of such tactics. The original bipartisan Team Canada spirit, once consciously adopted by premiers and the prime minister to reassure citizens, has come to an end and the finger-pointing has begun, reinforced with half-truths and deliberately deceptive claims. Nowhere is this more apparent than in two recent examples which accentuate the fact that politicians in difficulty are even more likely to resort to this tactic.

Take the case of   Doug Ford. With a current approval rating of 19%, which pollster Frank Graves has described as “unimaginably low..worst marks ever”, [ii] Ford is staring down the barrel of next year’s scheduled provincial election. Perhaps not surprisingly, the premier is looking for someone else to blame for the virulent third wave of the COVID pandemic that has flattened Ontario. And not too surprisingly he has recently hired Stephen Harper’s former attack dog, Kory Teneycke, as his full-time campaign chief. What is extraordinary is the fact that Ford is now launching expensive and highly personal campaign-style attack ads on TV, radio and even Facebook, claiming this devastating third wave is almost entirely the fault of Justin Trudeau’s failure to close the border.

Yet the facts prove otherwise. Virtually all medical experts agree that Ford failed to implement tough restrictions soon enough, chose the wrong ones when he finally acted, and categorically refused to introduce important containment measures such as paid sick leave for far too long. In short, Ford is the author of Ontario’s third wave, and he has invented the border issue to deflect blame.

Tellingly, Ford has not provided any concrete evidence to show that the current border system poses a health threat. Instead he has relied on anecdotes and third-hand evidence to suggest it is a massive problem. Lacking hard data he has also muddied the waters by claiming it is rich returning snowbirds who are the source of the new variants by bending the rules and hiring taxis or even private planes to enter the country, a propaganda line sure to appeal to his rural and working class supporters even if there is not a shred of evidence to support his claims.

This in turn is hardly surprising since medical experts have repeatedly pointed out that fewer than 2% of all cases in Canada are thought to be related to transmission from travelers. Data provided by Toronto Public Health, for example, indicate that only 0.6 % of COVID-19 cases in the city have had a confirmed link to travel since August of 2020. As one chief medical officer stressed, “Of the 30 people I have seen die of COVID in ICU, and the more than 100 others I have treated, none returned to Canada on a private plane or any plane for that matter. Most got COVID at work, from a close contact or due to lack of timely access to vaccination.”[iii]

Meanwhile legal experts have pointed out that the federal government cannot prevent Canadians and permanent residents from returning to the country; it can only attempt to regulate their departure or re-entry in one way or another. Hence the pre- and post-flight testing requirements, mandatory quarantines and ban on non-essential travel that Ottawa imposed. Hence also the federal government’s negotiated deal with air carriers to halt all flights to popular southern vacation destinations over the winter, and to require all international flights to land only in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, as well as the most recent ban on all flights from India and Pakistan.

Now Ford, under pressure over his poor performance, argues even more needs to be done, but not by him. He has called on the federal government to impose similar or stricter quarantine rules on those entering at land points, but he has failed to explain how this could be done in practice, no doubt because he knows it would be difficult if not impossible. As every school child knows, Canada and the U.S. share the longest land border in the world. There are 14 land crossings between Ontario and the US alone, passing through 3 different states, as well as one truck ferry and three passenger ferries. Diverting passenger planes to a few designated sites is far less of a logistics challenge than closing land borders, especially in Ontario. Most have heavy truck transport traffic and are among the busiest commercial border sites in North America. Opting to close some crossing sites, as has been done with airports, would result in huge, potentially days’ long line-ups at the remaining sites and exacerbate already significant delays in the transport of essential goods. Several of the border crossings have no nearby hotels, and far more personnel would be required to monitor these returnees than at airports. Some sites also represent the only point of access for hundreds of miles, and others typically see large numbers of workers and family members cross on an almost daily basis. As one commentator noted, Ford has carefully avoided suggesting that any specific border crossing site be closed, most likely for fear of incurring voter wrath and retribution. (His earlier suggestion that the federal government should close Pearson airport was, after all, met with disbelief by not only ordinary citizens and those who depend on the airport and its commerce for their jobs, but by the massive Toronto-based business community on which he depends for financial support.)     

In a telling letter to Ford’s Solicitor General and Health Minister, the federal minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Dominic LeBlanc, attempted to bring reason to the debate by laying out a number of relevant facts. He pointed out, for example, that even as Ford was calling for the federal government to prevent the entry of any international students, Ontario had already approved entry exemptions for thirty thousand such students in the past year. LeBlanc also noted that the federal and Ontario governments had long ago signed a “mutually agreed list of acceptable international travelers” and requested that Ford advise him as to which categories on the list he now wanted to remove – truckers? medical staff? temporary agricultural workers? LeBlanc again pointed out that Canada’s border controls are already among the strictest in the world, and that the amount of time, money and personnel that would be required to attempt to achieve an even more rigorous system would be hugely disproportionate to the very limited threat represented by border access.[iv]

In a recent interview Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed frustration with Ford’s aggressive personal attacks in the middle of a pandemic. He also attempted to dispel concerns about the so-called border ‘issue’ by stressing the low risk and the existing measures for land entry, including the 14-day quarantine at home rule and the requirement for every entrant to provide negative tests both before and after their return. He pointed out the significant differences in the situation of individuals entering the country by air versus land, making air travel a more relevant area on which to focus resources. [v] Other federal spokespersons noted that Ford’s frequent positive references to Australia’s approach were hardly relevant, since that country has no common border with another state and hence no issue of land entry, and also because several of the measures its government has imposed on its citizens to stem the spread of the virus would be viewed as unacceptably draconian by Canadians.[vi]

Nevertheless opinion polls demonstrate that Ford’s tactic seems to be working, not only in Ontario but across the country. A majority of Canadians now believe that the Trudeau government has badly managed the border ‘issue’. Recent surveys also demonstrate that a majority of Canadians are now fixated on the fallacious image of huge flocks of Canadian snowbirds flying to Buffalo rather than Montreal or Toronto and then crossing the border by foot or taxi, or landing in a private plane, in order to avoid the three-day hotel quarantine requirement. In short, Ford (or Teneycke) has managed to convert a real health issue (his poor handling of the pandemic’s third wave) into a perceived fairness issue (the federal government’s differential treatment of air and land arrivals) regardless of the facts.

A similar debacle is unfolding at the federal level on a very different topic.  With his party’s voter support plummeting, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole is rapidly becoming equally cavalier about the truth. This is the same Erin O’Toole who has taken the party on a steeply declining path since becoming its leader last fall. With public opinion polls showing the Conservatives have virtually no chance of winning the next federal election while the Liberals may well be looking at a majority, O’Toole appears to be seizing on whatever he can find to attack them, regardless of the facts.

Hence the Conservatives’ sudden high profile campaign against Bill C-10, a previously little known piece of legislation designed to regulate large foreign internet companies, promote Canadian content and prevent hate speech. When the bill was first introduced it received the general support of all parties except the Conservatives, but even their opposition at first was mild and muted, coming largely from the extreme right element of their caucus that views any attempt to prevent hate speech as an assault on free speech. (Needless to say this was not an element of his caucus that O’Toole, desperate to shift his party’s image towards the centre of the political spectrum, was keen to highlight.)

But recently, with their fortunes fading fast, the Conservatives have seized upon a minor amendment introduced at the committee stage – designed to close an inadvertent loophole and protect Canadian musicians — to launch a full-scale attack on the bill and, more importantly, on what they hope voters will see as the duplicitous Liberal government attempting to act as Big Brother. O’Toole himself actually penned a piece in the National Post that quoted George Orwell and seemed to suggest “the Liberals might start monitoring Facebook groups and their comments on news stories.”[vii] Put another way by one commentator, the Conservatives’ original bizarre, but unfounded, concern, that cat videos posted by individuals might be subject to CRTC rules, has morphed into a battle cry that “the Russians are coming!”[viii]

Despite testimony to the contrary by Justice officials and other experts – to say nothing of the disclaimers found in the bill itself — O’Toole’s Conservatives now argue the bill poses a serious threat to Canadians’ freedom of speech. While there may well be minor flaws in the legislation, and experts may debate whether it goes far enough or will achieve all of its objectives,[ix] no one but the Conservatives and a few die-hard technology supporters (who view any constraints on the internet as unacceptable), are expressing outrage over its potential limitations on free speech.            

Like Ford, the O’Toole Conservatives are playing to their base, which according to recent polls was in danger of losing interest in the party. O’Toole’s strident attacks on the Trudeau Liberals, using the defence of free speech as an excuse even though he knows there is no such threat, is in fact playing extremely well in much of English-speaking Canada, where most Canadians had never heard of the bill before. To prolong the controversy and the media coverage the Conservatives are also attempting to delay the progress of the bill. Tory MP Rachel Harder, not a regular member of the committee, suddenly appeared at a meeting and promptly launched a filibuster that gained considerable publicity. Perhaps most importantly, the Conservatives are also making hay with their defence of free speech tactic through attack ads focused on Trudeau and the Liberal government, and are allegedly raising considerable funds for their election war chest from outraged party members they have incited over this non-issue through attack ads in their direct mail..     

The implications of this type of deliberate deception are significant. Ordinary citizens do not have the time, knowledge or inclination to master individual policy files and make their own assessments. Until recently, they could have expected the debate between government and opposition parties would highlight genuine problems with policies and be based on legitimate differences of opinion. Instead, it seems that some Canadian politicians are prepared to head down the same road taken by Karl Rove and Donald Trump. It should give Canadian voters pause to learn that attack ads and a disdain for the truth have paved the way for the current state of affairs in America, where some 70% of Trump’s supporters continue to believe that last November’s presidential election was rigged and Trump actually won.

[i] Michael Perry. “Trump Follows Goebbels Lead on Attacking Opponents”. Daily Star. New York. May 30,2018.

[ii] Susan Delacourt. ‘Trudeau Government Throws Travel Ban Back in Ford’s Lap”. Toronto Star. May 8, 2021

[iii] K. Wilson. “Ford, Trudeau Continue to Trade Barbs Over Border Restrictions” CP24. May 13, 2021.

[iv] Delacourt. Ibid.

[v] Nathan Denette. “Trudeau Accuses Ford of Using Border Ads for Personal Attacks”. Globe and Mail.  May 22,2021

[vi] David Common. “How Australia Succeeded in Lowering COVID Cases to Near-Zero”. Nov.25,2020.

[vii] Kate Taylor. “Dishonest censorship scare may torpedo Bill C-10” Globe and Mail. May 9, 2021

[viii] Erica Ifill. “Chaotic Communication Causing Confusion in Broadcasting Bafflegab”. Hill Times. May 12, 2021.

[ix] See for example the transcript of the webinar on “Bill C-10 and the Future of Internet Regulation in Canada”, Carleton University. Ottawa. May 25, 2021.