Voter suppression
2 min

The fundamental undemocratic nature of attack ads

Green Party leader Elizabeth May opened up the winter session Parliament with a press conference shortly before the House resumed sitting, where she expressed her dismay with the recent spate of attack ads. While May has called for these ads to be banned before – as has been done in countries like the UK, where television and radio political advertising has been banned – she had some specific and timely criticism of these attack ads.

“Attack ads are by definition fundamentally anti-democratic. Research into why attack ads ‘work’ tells us that they work by discouraging voters from showing up. Voter suppression is even a turn of phrase used by Republicans south of the border, and I’m afraid this very anti-democratic strategy has come to Canada. It’s time to send it packing.

“Attack ads work by making voters think that it’s all too unpleasant. They tune out political discourse because it’s all dreadful.”

May lays much of the blame on the party apparatus and “spin doctors,” who use issues to gain partisan advantage and to stick it to their opponents rather than to actually address problems. She noted that political parties are exempt from broadcast advertising standards, and she called on parties to adhere to these standards regardless.

“Tim Horton’s wouldn’t be able to run attack ads against Starbucks the way Mr. Harper can run attack ads against Mr. Layton or Mr. Ignatieff, or vice-versa. Shouldn’t we hold our elected officials – in fact our Prime Minister – to a higher standard of behaviour than those who would want us to buy their goods and services? Certainly Mr. Harper can meet the same standards as Tim Horton’s.”

May also noted that the Green Party’s voter share was the only one to increase in the last election, and that demonstrated ways in which voter suppression tactics were operating between the other parties, and advertising which left voters wanting.

“Canadians are desperate to hear from the people seeking public office – what are you for? What do you care about? Why do to you do this? Where do you see solutions to the problems? How could you perhaps find common, cooperative approaches that might approach compromises on all sides, but would get us to a better policy? Because of the excessive partisanship that now pervades our culture, issues that could be solved in the House are actually sabotaged by spin doctors in order to create a wedge issue.”

Even though attack ads have the capacity to generate funds for the parties being targeted, as was demonstrated during this latest round when the NDP declared that they had a “banner day” of fundraising after Jack Layton put out an appeal in the wake of the ads, May sees the longer-term effects of voter suppression as detrimental.

“As we go into what may be a spring 2011 election, will it be the policy of the political strategists and spin doctors in other parties to actually discourage voters from going to the polls? We see people in the streets in Egypt to try to get democracy. We know people around the world will risk their lives to get democracy, and in Canada we appear to have, at the level of political strategists for election campaigns, people willing to deliberately poison democracy in Canada through this kind of negative advertising.”
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