Electoral Reform

Since Lyndon Johnson launched “the daisy ad” – accusing Barry Goldwater of capriciously threatening nuclear war – negative advertising has become common place in politics.

So common place in fact that, almost half a century later, on the heels of yet another volley of Conservative attack ads against another new Liberal leader, Canada’s “national” newspaper, The Globe and Mail, is now exhorting Justin Trudeau to counter attack and “fight fire with fire or look weak”.

For decades, political operatives have defended the practice of focusing on your opponent’s weaknesses, rather than your strengths, as a legitimate part of democratic choice. The Globe echoes this sentiment … “Isn’t politics about showing why you’re a better choice that your opponent? That implies both the positive and the negative”. But the Globe goes even farther than the practitioners, with the claim that “…. the notion of rising above negativity feels false to what politics are really about …”. This view of “what politics is really about” and the role that negative advertising plays in it, is not only callow, it is dangerous and wrong.

Not just part of democratic choice, attack ads are also justified for the simple reason that they work. Of course they work. They play to – and I believe feed – the public’s general cynicism towards the political system and distrust of politicians. Sad but true, a message that states … “politician A is a crook” is far more likely to be believed than one that claims “politician B is a paragon of virtue”. But using this justification implies that the only practice of politics and role for politicians is to secure short-term electoral gain over your opponent.

If negative advertising is so effective, maybe the media and politicians should ask themselves why other big advertisers (who are far more experienced and savvy) do not employ these same tactics. Just like the electoral process, it is safe to assume that McDonald’s wants to take market share from Burger King. They also know that the quickest and most immediate way of doing this would be to launch an ad campaign that claimed their competitor’s product contained botulism. Burger King could neutralize McDonald’s advantage by countering that Big Macs are rife with e-coli. This attack and counterattack might “work” to the extent that it would affect market share but it is not employed by McDonald’s and Burger King because they know it will destroy the category and pretty soon no one would ever buy a hamburger again. In other words, they are smart enough to know that the business they are in is not just about taking market share from the other guy … it’s about making consumers believe in eating hamburgers.

So while focusing on your opponent’s weakness rather than your own virtues might lead to a short term electoral advantage, over time, it will create a cascade of political cynicism. If you say “politician A is a crook” often enough, it is only a matter of time before the public comes to believe that all politicians are crooks. That is what is happening now and these are the seeds that defenders of negative advertising are sewing.

We would be wise to remember that politics is not a blood sport and that “what politics are really about” is not bludgeoning your opponent until they cannot stand.

For good or ill, politics is the process by which we organize civil, democratic society. It is used to allocate a nation’s scare resources. Through it, we confer a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Because of it, we are able to represent the wishes of the majority and at the same time protect the rights of minority. And at bottom, politics creates a state that has the potential to do immense good or infinite harm and as such, we all have a vested interest that the best and brightest and only those who are motivated by the public good are encouraged to enter public life.

In the very same way, those who believe that this is “what politics are really about” have a responsibility to draw attention to its virtues and not just its shortcomings.

DAMN! It’s 7 p.m. and I just remembered this is the last day to pay the fall instalment on my property tax. I settle in my home office, go online and transfer funds from my bank account to the city treasury — problem solved.

Then I decide to watch a first-run movie. I program the converter of my video-on-demand system and, bingo, I’m watching Tom Cruise.

Before going to bed, I test my blood pressure and, according to the results, self-administer a cocktail of vitamins as prescribed by my doctor.

As an individual and consumer, I’ve been empowered by innovation. But as a citizen? Well, sometime within the next five years — I know not when — I will be given an HB pencil and invited to mark an X on a piece of paper in a federal election polling booth. The advances made possible by technology elsewhere are almost completely absent in politics. Computer models that simulate public policy alternatives, electronic town hall meetings linking citizens with their leaders, constituency initiatives where voters develop solutions to their unique community problems, even voting machines connected to a central ballot counter — all are deemed too problematic to institute.

The system is ailing and the disease is cynicism. Perhaps the time has come for a radical new treatment

Over the course of tracking public opinion for twenty years, the private polls I conducted for my political clients showed that the number of Canadians who held at least a “somewhat” positive view of politicians fell from 60 percent to less than 20 percent. Today, Ipsos-Reid reports that a grand total of 9 percent of Canadians describe politicians as “extremely trustworthy.” How is it that the people we choose to lead us are now routinely considered venal and unworthy of our following? And what does it say about our ability to choose our representatives when these are the dominant characteristics we ascribe to them?

Forget already disgraced figures such as former Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski, or Public Works Minister Alphonso Gagliano. Even the much revered and iconic Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, can’t pass the test we have set for public office-holders. Why, in the fiscal year 2002–2003 (the last full year for which complete information is available), would a government official whose responsibilities are exclusively domestic jet off to Europe on two separate trips? The answer – in both cases to attend meetings directly related to her work – is lost on those determined to reduce a stalwart defender of the public interest to just another free-spending public servant.

But the core problem is that our cynicism cultivates fertile soil for more cynicism, and if we are to save democracy, we must make a concerted effort to reverse this trend, using new methods that, to date, have been unconsidered.


The trend toward lower voter turnout is like a canary in the mine shaft of Canadian democracy. Over the last 16 years, we have witnessed a 14-per-cent decline in balloting in federal elections. Moreover, the diminishing sense among young people that voting is “essential” suggests that this trend will continue.

To combat increased cynicism about elections, governments and politicians, elected officials are proposing a variety of measures. New Brunswick has launched a commission to investigate replacing their winner-take-all elections with a system of proportional representation. British Columbia has struck a constituent assembly made up of randomly selected citizens to analyze electoral reform, with the promise of a binding referendum on their recommendations in 2005. Dalton McGuinty, the Ontario premier, has established “citizen juries” to deliberate over major policy questions, and Prime Minister Paul Martin has committed to parliamentary reform in an effort to reduce the “democratic deficit.”

These initiatives reflect a growing alarm over voters’ progressive disengagement, but each one addresses an isolated part of the problem, be it the diminished role of backbench MPs, under-representation of smaller parties in legislatures, or the absence of citizen input in government decision-making. That’s because the measures needed to combat the democratic deficit are so varied. Voter turnout could be increased to 100 per cent if we implemented compulsory voting, as is the practice in Australia. The role of elected officials could be enhanced by increasing the power of parliamentary committees and conducting more free votes, as Martin advocates. Citizen input could be expanded through regular referenda, recall and initiative provisions that are common in many U.S. states, such as California.