Don’t let dubious political tactics turn us off politics

Here’s a guest post from Ben Gillies, a political economy grad from the University of Manitoba.

Canadians Must Not Let Dubious Political Tactics Turn Us Off Politics Altogether

By Benjamin Gillies

Last week, the Conservatives admitted their party was behind a rash of
phone calls to Liberal Irwin Cotler’s federal riding in Montreal, in
which constituents were apparently informed of Mr. Cotler’s
resignation. The calls, made by a marketing research company hired by
the governing party, insinuated he has left politics—which is
false—and urged respondents to support the Conservatives in an
upcoming byelection—that does not actually exist.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan
defended his party’s actions, claiming they were simply using the
calls as a means of identifying supporters. Moreover, he argued,
speculation that Mr. Cotler would resign has been circulating since he
was first elected in 1999—as originally his plan had been to only
serve one or two terms before returning to academia—and is therefore a
legitimate piece of information to share with constituents. According
to Mr. Van Loan, all his colleagues did was exercise their right to
free speech.

Even if, technically, this move did not break any Parliamentary rules
or federal laws regarding the spreading of misleading information,
many experts worry it is still likely to leave a bad taste in the
mouths of many voters. Citizens are liable to feel they have been
purposely duped or misled by the calls, which only serves to reaffirm
their general distrust of politicians and political parties.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time Canadians have been subject
to almost blatantly unsavoury tactics, either. The Tories have been
involved in a number of notable controversies over the past several
years—such as distributing bulk mailings containing inaccurate and
misleading information to voters in 2005, and providing handbooks on
how to disrupt Parliamentary proceedings in 2007—that do not portray
elected officials in a particularly positive light.

It is natural that we might find these actions distasteful, but
citizens should remain wary of being turned off entirely to politics
because of them. In an important respect, such apathy would only play
into Conservative hands. If their goal is to convince Canadians the
country is worse off when government gets involved, then the more
inept they can be, the more likely citizens will adopt their view that
the government system itself is dysfunctional and should be
dramatically cut back. In contrast, of course, progressive MPs have
more to gain by proving the public sector can work efficiently, which
means not only behaving in a positive manner themselves, but also
countering any meddlesome or unproductive actions of other members.

Though we disagree on what exactly its role and size should be, most
Canadians recognize there are great benefits of a well-functioning
public sector—such as its ability to capture economies of scale (in
healthcare provision, for example). If we allow ourselves to buy into
the notion that all government is ineffective or every elected
official is incompetent based on the deliberately questionable actions
of a few politicians, we let anti-government adherents win without
even having to put forth an argument as to why the private sector is a
superior choice.

If a corporate official acted disruptively, it is unlikely
shareholders would assume all company workers were incompetent, but
rather would choose to rid themselves of the one unsatisfactory
employee. Voters should adopt a similar approach when assessing the
people we elect to represent us—considering whether the government
could be effective if it was composed of members who acted in a
capable and honest manner. (Which, it is worth noting, is not to say
we could not also ask whether select programs or services might
ultimately accomplish their goals more efficiently if carried out in
the private sector.) What we should not do is become jaded to the idea
that, in the right hands, a certain amount of government activity can
be a useful and important tool in a just and prosperous society.

Over the course of our history, intelligent and hard-working
politicians of all stripes have enacted policies that helped make our
country one of the best in the world. As an electorate, we must not
today fall victim to decidedly unprincipled practices designed to turn
us against the potential of a continued positive role for government
in Canada. Instead, citizens should strongly denounce or remove those
parliamentarians from all parties who would employ openly dubious
tactics, so that their competent counterparts can get on doing what we
elected them to do—build and strengthen our country.

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