My letter about the raccoon beatings is in the Globe & Mail today

Photo from the Globe & Mail

As some of you know, I’m working for Lawyers for Animal Welfare (LAW) over the summer. We were horrified to learn on Wednesday of the Toronto man who allegedly beat a family of baby raccoons with a shovel, while the mother raccoon watched helplessly and tried to carry her babies to shelter. It’s the kind of senseless cruelty that makes my head spin.

We issued a media release, applauding the police for acting swiftly and charging the suspect. I also sent a letter to a few papers on behalf of LAW, and the Globe & Mail published it today. Sweet! The link is here, and the text is below.

Raccoons, humans

Lawyers for Animal Welfare (LAW) applaud the police for reacting quickly to horrifying reports that a Toronto man was allegedly beating a family of baby raccoons with a shovel-like tool (Humans Draw First Blood In Toronto’s War On Raccoons – June 2).

It’s essential Crown prosecutors pursue all cases involving animal-cruelty charges vigorously. Society must send a strong message that harming animals will be met with heavy sanctions.

Camille Labchuk, LawyersForAnimalWelfare.com, Toronto

A couple bits of the letter didn’t make it into the paper, including the fact that the Criminal Code provisions dealing with animal cruelty are very weak and in desperate need of updating. However, for cases like this, Crown prosecutors have the tools they need to pursue strong sanctions. Let’s hope the full force of the law is brought to bear in this and other animal cruelty cases.

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My Hill Times Spin Doctors piece from this week

During the election, I contributed to The Hill Times’ weekly Spin Doctors feature on behalf of the Green Party. If you’re not a regular Hill Times reader, Spin Doctors has a strategist from each party respond to the question of the week. It was initially just for the duration of the election, but now that Green leader Elizabeth May has a seat in the House of Commons, The Hill Times asked us to continue to contribute. Thanks, Hill Times!  So make sure to check out my piece each week. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of getting more Green pundits in the media.

This week, the topic was Harper’s ridiculous Senate appointments.

“Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton says they’ll make a great contribution to the Senate. Liberal pundit Warren Kinsella said “Harper has flipped the finger” at voters in Quebec and Newfoundland who just rejected them. Why did Stephen Harper announce that he intended to appoint three failed Conservative candidates to the Senate?”

My answer:

The recent Senate appointments are an insult to every one of us, especially to the voters who rejected the three losing candidates. Of course, rewarding Conservative cronies with a seat in the Red Chamber is nothing new for Harper – most of his appointments have been failed candidates, party fundraisers and organizers, and journalists who did Harper’s bidding.

But letting Larry Smith and Fabian Manning resign, run, lose, yet still get their old patronage jobs back? Many people wondered at the time why they would give up cushy Senate seats to take a chance on being defeated at the polls, and I think we now know the answer – there was never any danger of losing their Senate jobs for good. This is a new low for democracy, and it reeks of sketchy backroom dealing.

We need to know whether Smith and Manning were promised reappointment should they fail to be elected. Unfortunately, I doubt we ever will – we do, after all, have the least transparent Prime Minister in history.

Apparently Harper also has a problem sticking to his principles if partisan advantage is to be had. He denounced partisan Senate appointments while in opposition, and let’s not forget the 2004 election platform promise that “Stephen Harper will cease patronage appointments to the Senate. Only candidates elected by the people will be named to the Upper House.”

I guess what he meant to say was that only those “defeated by the people” will win the Senate jackpot.

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Why bother with the facts when you can make stuff up?

Today I am compelled to write about three frustrating examples of the media distorting the story and presenting their own view to readers.

The first is an example of the narrative dominating post-election media coverage of the Greens — that the Green national vote dropped because we didn’t run a national campaign, and focused on electing leader Elizabeth May in Saanich–Gulf Islands. As I wrote in my last post, this is simply inaccurate.  But here’s an excerpt from a Canwest story on Green leader Elizabeth May’s call for voting reform:

May, Canada’s first-elected Green MP, won the British Columbia riding of Saanich Gulf-Islands May 2 in a hard-fought battle against former Conservative cabinet minister Gary Lunn.

The American-born environmental lawyer spent the campaign in the riding, instead of conducting the conventional cross-Canada campaigning of a party leader, and choosing to focus on winning the Greens’ first seat.

Although May won, the party suffered nationally from the one-riding strategy with its share of the vote dropping to four per cent from seven per cent.

First, this passage gets it even more wrong than usual in that it outright says we didn’t conduct a cross-Canada campaign. Totally false – Elizabeth May visited Canada from coast-to-coast, held major rallies in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Orangeville, Kitchener, Hamilton, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax. She also conducted a whistle-stop tour between Vancouver and Edmonton, and Toronto and Montreal.

Second, there is a claim that our allegedly non-existent national campaign hurt our national vote. As we all know, the real reason the Green vote fell is that Elizabeth May was shut out of the federal leaders’ debates. This theory is borne out by EKOS polling data showing a quick loss of support after the debates, because the broadcast corporations sent a message that the Greens are not a serious party. (One member of the shadowy broadcast consortium responsible for shutting out the Green voice is Global. Part of Canwest. This is a Canwest story. How interesting.) The other reason the Green national vote fell is that the media covered almost nothing we said or did following the debates – including May’s cross-country tour and rallies.

And finally, why describe Elizabeth May as American-born? How is that relevant in any way to the story? Why not describe her as the only leader to have received the Order of Canada? At least that has some political relevance, and this is a story about politics.

The second example of selective presentation of facts relates to a Globe & Mail column penned this week by Margaret Wente entitled Hard questions for Elizabeth May, where she made the blatantly untrue statement that influential UK environmental journalist George Monbiot is May’s “biggest critic”. Of course, Monbiot was quick to correct this falsehood with a letter to the editor, in which he reminded the paper that he had never said a word against May.

The first question this raises is why the Globe would allow such a sloppy and misleading column to be published in the first place. But an even more interesting question materializes after looking at the edits the Globe made to Monbiot’s letter. The brilliant writer behind Media Culpa blog posted an analysis of this issue. Below is the complete letter Monbiot sent to the Globe. The bolded lines are the ones they edited out before publishing. (I’m reposting this from Media Culpa — thanks for the legwork.)

Dear Sir,

Margaret Wente’s column, in which she claims to summarize and support two articles of mine, contains a number of outrageous misrepresentations and distortions. She suggests I said that environmentalists “don’t understand the science and they don’t understand the economics.” I’ve said nothing of the kind.

She also claims that I am Elizabeth May’s “biggest critic.” If so, May has little to worry about. I am a great admirer of hers, and I’m delighted that she is now a member of parliament. I am sure that, like Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP in the UK, she will do an excellent job of holding the government to account, and will enrich the political life of the nation. Her “biggest critic” has never said a word against her.

Elizabeth and I could, if we tried, doubtless find issues on which we disagree, but that, I believe, is something to celebrate. Environmentalism is perhaps the most politically diverse movement in history, accommodating a wide range of views and perspectives, while drawing people together through a shared concern for the planet, its people, its places and its living creatures. The fact that we are able to hold a wide range of views without excoriating each other suggests that the green movement is a haven of free and independent thought, all too rare in the current political climate of micro-management and control freakery.

My articles sought to lay out the difficulties and dilemmas we environmentalists face, and to contribute to an open, public discussion of the kind that few other movements are prepared to contemplate. It is hard to understand how they could have been so radically misconstrued.

Yours Sincerely,

George Monbiot

As you can see, the Globe’s edits to Monbiot’s letter shift the emphasis far away from the fact that one of their writers blatantly made up parts of her column by misrepresenting and distorting Monbiot’s views. They also delete his reference to Caroline Lucas, UK Green leader and also recently elected under a first-past-the-post system. (Why give Canadian readers the impression that Greens are a global force, making progress and here to stay?)

And finally, there’s this piece by Rex Murphy in the National Post, entitled “One Green seat out of 308 is not historic“. It’s full of so much spin that it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s give it a shot.

For years, Rex has been saying the Greens are a fringe party and not worthy of attention. But then we get 7% of the vote (2008)! What now? What’s the new narrative? Oh, OK, but we didn’t elect anyone so it doesn’t matter that nearly a million Canadians supported the Greens. Next the Greens decide to focus our resources on electing an MP. But of course we hear that Elizabeth May could never beat Gary Lunn, a 14- year incumbent and sitting cabinet minister. How foolish of her to think she could win a seat. But surprise… she does win, and it’s a landslide! Poor Rex, how can he possibly spin this result? Ah, I know: sure, she won but it’s definitely not a “historic” win because it’s only one seat. And we lost votes overall, so I guess national vote actually does matter after all, even with a seat. Sorry Rex, but electing the first ever Green MP is actually the definition of “historic”. Get over it.

He also includes the puzzling line that “the press tends to be kindly to the (political) lone ranger” (referring to May). Again, a simple look at reality shows that the opposite is true — see above. The press tends to ignore the Greens — at least, they mostly did during the election.

I could dissect more coverage, but I think you’re starting to get the picture. That’s it for today.

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A Green MP! And other election thoughts

Photo by TJ Watt - www.utopiaphoto.ca

A mere week and a half after E Day, I’m finally writing about it. Better late than never, right? What a wild campaign it was! Law school exams and papers unfortunately coincided with the election campaign, so I was forced to juggle politics with school work. I spent some time in Ottawa in Green campaign HQ, returned to Toronto for some exams, then booted it out to BC. Nothing is more painful than studying when I want to be on the campaign trail, but exams got written and the Greens elected our first MP!

Obviously, electing Elizabeth May in Saanich–Gulf Islands was the best part of the election. Greens around the world are showing that we can elect MPs under any electoral system — even the antiquated, unfair first-past-the-post system. The UK Greens elected leader Caroline Lucas last year, and the Australian Greens elected Adam Bandt (under preferential voting, a little different from FPTP but still not a proportional system). And now the Canadian Greens have joined the club, sending Elizabeth May to Parliament with an astounding 46.3% of the vote and a 7,000+ vote lead over 14-year incumbent cabinet minister Gary Lunn. What a stunning victory! This is a virtual tie for the highest ever vote share for a Green in a single federal district — second only to Germany, where a Green pulled in 46.7% in 2009.

Of course, this is just the beginning. Sending Elizabeth May to the House of Commons is the silver lining in the dark cloud of this election, which saw the Harper Conservatives win a false majority government. Having a Green MP in Parliament means that Canadians will have more opportunities to learn about our policies, our plan to fix democracy in Canada, our solutions to the climate crisis, and much more. I know they will like what they see, and I know we’ll elect more MPs in 2015.

Despite the historic victory in Saanich–Gulf Islands, some media and commentators have attempted to portray the election results as negative for the Greens because our national vote dropped. They claim we focused all of our energy on electing Elizabeth May, gave up on the national campaign, and that this trade-off that caused us to lose votes elsewhere. With respect to my friends in the media, this is preposterous and false. Our national vote was down for two reasons. First, because the broadcast consortium kicked Elizabeth May out of the debates. Second, because the national media did a splendid job of ignoring the Green Party during this campaign.

On the matter of the debates, all we have to do is check out EKOS polling data over the course of the election. As you can see, Green support held high at about where it was before the election – around 10% – for the first phase of the campaign. But check out what happened during debate week. As soon as the debates were over, our support fell. Why? It’s obvious: by excluding Elizabeth May from the debates, the broadcasters clearly signaled to voters that the Greens are not a serious political party. This was compounded by the fact that we were ignored by most national media during the election.

As for our national campaign, we certainly did run one — most media just didn’t cover it. Elizabeth May toured this country from coast to coast. She was the only leader to even bother stopping by Calgary — the old-line parties all wrote it off as a city filled with safe seats. May did whistle-stop tours between Toronto and Montreal, and Vancouver and Edmonton. We held huge Rallies for Democracy in cities right across the country. The Greens also issued policy announcements on nearly every day of the campaign. We talked about important issues that were largely ignored by other parties — like the climate crisis, Aboriginal issues, high-speed rail, funding our public broadcaster, food security, poverty, nuclear safety, disabilities, urban infrastructure, and the need for a G8/G20 inquiry.

But did the national media cover anything the Greens said or did during the campaign? Did Canadians hear about our whistle-stop tour on the nightly national TV news? Not so much. Only our exclusion from the debates garnered any substantial print space or air time. (That, and the Love Song penned for Elizabeth May by fan Josh Rachlis.) The rest of the coverage was astonishingly sparse. As May said at her Toronto Rally for Democracy, the Greens had not only been uninvited from the debates — it seemed we hadn’t even been invited to the election.

Frankly, it’s impressive that we held on to as much of our vote as we did, given the media blackout and the fact that many of our candidates were shut out of local debates because we weren’t in the televised leaders’ debates. It’s thanks to our strong team of impressive candidates that we did as well as we did. Our candidates were out knocking on doors every night, showing up to debates and interviews (unlike a good number of Conservatives), spreading the Green message of hope and advancing good ideas.

Rather than facing reality and acknowledging the effects of their own acts, some media have chosen to write their own narrative. So be it. Green voters finally have a voice in Parliament, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters. It was a good election for the Greens, and the next one will be even better. I’m looking forward to seeing many of our candidates join Elizabeth May in Parliament.

I have lots more to say about the election, so stop back by tomorrow. I’ll post a special announcement about some exciting blog posts that are planned for the coming weeks!

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Elizabeth May’s thoughts on the media consortium

I had been thinking of doing a post on the undemocratic media cartel that controls televised leaders’ debates during Canadian elections. However, Elizabeth May has written a compelling blog on this very topic, so I’m reposting her thoughts instead. Read on to learn more about the utter absence of consistent rules or criteria that govern debates, and how the Greens have been covered so far in this election.
——————–
By Elizabeth May on 1 April 2011 – 10:07pm

It is great to be recommended for endorsement by the website Catch 22.  But that’s not what this blog is about.

This blog is about the media consortium.

Catch 22 was a 1961 novel by Joseph Heller. The setting was a military bureaucracy where whatever you did, you were wrong.

Here’s a taste of the book:

“Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating.” Another character explains: “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”

The media Consortium keeps playing Catch 22 on the Green Party.  In 2008, when Blair Wilson was a sitting Green MP at dissolution of the House, the Consortium said that since there were no rules, having a seat didn’t matter.  Greens were not invited to participate.  Now, they say, you have never had an elected MP.  Two Catch 22s in one sentence.  Last time we didn’t have an elected MP, but they relented after public pressure.  Second, in 2008 they said that having an MP at all was not a rule.

Last time media said I should have run somewhere else and concentrated on winning a seat.  This time, according to one report on CBC news, the consortium thinks I cannot be in the debates because the Greens are not running a truly national campaign because we are making the leader winning a seat a priority. Chantal Hebert embraced this idea as well. She suggested we are only really running in one riding.

Not a national campaign??  We are running 308 candidates.  We have a $2,5 million campaign budget nationally (contrasted with $80,000 in Saanich-Gulf Islands).  And I am going to be touring the country on a national leaders’ tour, only it will be a bit shorter than last time.

And since when is running a truly national campaign a criterion?  Clearly, Gilles Duceppe will not set a foot out of Quebec, but I am penalized for spending relatively more time in my riding than in 2008.

The Globe interviewed the Consortium chair, Troy Reeb, who said Greens will get plenty of other coverage.  “If you look at all the English news casts Wednesday night, Elizabeth May was front and centre in all of them.”  Well, yes.  Because it was news that they were trying to keep me out of the debates.  But check any other nightly newscast and search in vain for Green coverage.  We have made a major policy statement every day. Have you heard about any of them?   Yesterday, we had a very newsworthy press conference with the former President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.  We called for an inquiry into the nuclear industry.  Covered on the evening TV news? No.

On Monday, Stephen Harper’s campaign came to Saanich-Gulf Islands. It was the second time in a month that he had visited my community.  The national media bus marshalled the captive reporters approximately five blocks from our office.  Media coverage sought out Opposition leaders’ comments on the Conservative announcement  — NDP and Liberal.  None of the national news coverage I heard mentioned that the visit was to a riding where the Greens have a reasonable prospect of defeating the incumbent Conservative.  No one contacted the Greens for response, or covered the response we posted.

But according to the Consortium, the debate is just one way they provide coverage and they provide lots of other ways for our views to be heard.  If they want to cling to that argument, then they may actually have to cover what positions and policies we advocate.

The media Consortium seems very determined to keep us out, but surely the CBC Ombudsman’s comments should have given them pause.  So too should the fact two former Prime Ministers support my inclusion in the debates (The Rt. Hon. Joe Clark and The Rt. Hon.Paul Martin).

Author of the best-selling A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright commented:

“Democracies are rare in history; they are easily hijacked by tyrants, and lost by neglect.  Harper has got away with far too much already.  Many Canadians have little idea of the damage he has done to our constitution and our country, though Elizabeth May has certainly been keeping score.  Now media barons are trying to shut her out of the campaign debates.  This decision is an outrage.  All Canadians, whether Green or not, are being cheated.  May’s clear and thoughtful voice must be heard.”

Against that, Mr Reeb has explained, “We are trying to make good television here, after all.”

That explanation stands as wholly inadequate when measured against the comment posted by the CBC Ombudsman, Kirk LaPointe:

I accept that this decision is not CBC and Radio Canada’s alone to make. But it is difficult to discern how the public interest is best served by exclusion or to find congruence in the decision and the public broadcaster’s mandate.

There might be no better time for media to demonstrate their commitment to democracy than in an election campaign. An integral part of that commitment is an exploration of ideas and platforms, and a valuable ingredient within that is an opportunity to present debate: many-on-many, one-on-one, on various issues in various places at various stages.

In a relatively short campaign, every element of coverage magnifies that commitment and every decision to include or exclude has a magnified impact.

The consortium has not elaborated on its decision, apart from asserting that it involved journalistic principles, but presumably press independence was a key. When media regularly park that principle to provide content with little other function than prurient indulgence, though, it is curious that the solemn stand suddenly surfaces.

The more I think about it, the Consortium, as novel, is less like Joseph Heller, and more like Ring Lardner, who wrote a classic summary of my situation:  ‘Shut up,’ he explained.

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Debates update: Greens file application with Federal Court of Appeal

Just a quick update to let you know that the Green Party’s lawyer, Peter Rosenthal, has filed an application with the Federal Court of Appeal for judicial review of the CRTC decision that the Greens need not be excluded in the debates.

You can download and read the application here.

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Update: debate duplicity from Harper, Iggy, Layton & Duceppe

Chronicle Herald cartoon by Bruce MacKinnon

A quick update on the debate drama: news of the Green Party being booted from the debates dominated the airwaves all day yesterday — and more importantly, dominated social media. Canadians on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, online comments, and emails to the networks expressed their outrage that voters were being denied the chance to hear from the leader of one of Canada’s five major parties.

Last night, the consortium confirmed with the other four leaders the dates and format of the debates. This means that Harper, Ignatieff, Layton and Duceppe all agreed to participate in a debate without Elizabeth May, which is sheer hypocrisy — they have all publicly stated she should be there, but it looks like they’re singing a different tune behind closed doors. We’ll have to fight them to hold on to our democratic right to free speech.

Frankly, this doesn’t surprise. We had been hearing rumblings that they opposed Elizabeth’s participation before we got news of the initial decision. It didn’t take long for each of them to publicly backtrack, of course, but I’m not surprised in the least that each of them would say one thing to Canadians, and tell the broadcasters a very different story. No wonder, given how Elizabeth May wiped the floor with each of them in 2008.

What next? It’s time to put pressure on the other leaders! Call them out on Twitter, on Facebook. Write emails! Keep writing to the networks! This issue is by no means over. The Green Party has retained lawyer Peter Rosenthal to take legal action against the consortium, and you can rest assured that the debates will not go ahead without Elizabeth May. If there’s one thing that’s clear, the networks will bow down to whatever the political parties want — this is why the Greens were excluded in 2008 when Harper and Layton threatened to boycott if she were in, and this is why she was then included when Layton and Harper backed down.

But we can’t do it without you, so keep it up. Don’t forget that our democracy is worth fighting for. That a group of elitist corporate network executives can get together behind closed doors, refuse to unveil their decision-making process, and control an important aspect of our elections, is the antithesis of free and open debate. Don’t let them get away with it.

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Elizabeth May not invited to leaders’ debates. It’s time to raise hell.

She belongs at the table, like in 2008

Many of us were shocked today to learn that the TV networks have denied Elizabeth May entry into the televised leaders’ debates this election. That’s right, folks. CTV, CBC, Global & TVA got together behind closed doors and decided that the 1 in 10 Canadians who support the Green Party don’t deserve to be represented during the debates. Yep, the TV execs think they should have the power to decide who YOU — the voters — get to hear from in this election.

Honestly, it’s difficult to understand why May’s participation in the debates is even a question — this matter was settled, quite decisively, in the last election. Today has actually felt like a scene from the film Groundhog Day for me. You may recall that in 2008 something quite similar happened to what unfolded today. The network execs told the Greens that May wouldn’t be invited to the debate table, blaming Jack Layton and Stephen Harper for threatening to boycott the debates if she were there. As we all know, that didn’t last for long. The public outrage was swift, and it was strong. Layton and Harper were dogged by protests erupting at their campaign rallies. Newspapers ran editorials condemning the exclusion, and supportive ink was spilled by prominent Canadians such as former Prime Minister Joe Clark, Judy Rebick of the NDP, and Tony Burman – former head of the network consortium. After two days of being peppered with questions about the matter and trashed on Facebook by his own supporters, Layton caved. Harper soon followed, and the networks relented – May was in. The public display of support for basic democratic principles was nothing short of inspiring, and May’s performance in the debates was admirable — she deemed to have won the English debate by many commentators.

The reasons that sparked public outrage in 2008 still apply today. The Green Party still runs candidates in 308 ridings. We still have broad public support. Canadians still want us in the debates – poll after poll has shown that over 70% of Canadians want the Greens in. The only thing that has changed is that nearly 1 million Canadians supported the Greens in the last election — the only party to receive more votes than in 2006.

And guess what, networks? People are as angry now as they were in 2008. May’s exclusion was the news of Twitter for the evening, and tweets were overwhelmingly supportive of her inclusion. A CBC online poll is showing over 80% want her in. It didn’t take long before Michael Ignatieff was asked about it at an event, and he clearly said he supported her presence. Jack Layton came next, indicating he was fine with her inclusion. The Conservatives say they will support whatever the networks decide, and no comment from the Bloc as of yet. Without any opposition from the political parties, the network decision becomes even more disturbing and utterly indefensible. They do not have the cloak of the other leaders to hide behind this time.

So what’s next? Canada, it’s time to get angry. (Or continue getting angry, since I know you already are.) We told the networks once that we won’t stand for a debate that doesn’t include the Greens, and we can do it again. Democracy is essential. Election-time debates shown on our public airwaves should not be ruled by the unfair and arbitrary preferences of a handful of corporate media executives. Let’s raise hell.

Here’s what you can do:

1. Visit http://demanddemocraticdebates.ca to sign our petition, donate, and more!

2. Vote in CBC’s poll on whether Elizabeth should be invited to the leaders’ debates

3. Like the Let Elizabeth May Debate in 2011 page on Facebook.

4. Email the news directors of consortium members CBC, CTV, Global, and TVA.

CTV:  programming@ctv.ca
CBC:  ombudsman@cbc.ca
Global TV:   viewercontact.globalnational@globaltv.com
TVA:  info@tva.ca
Radio Canada: ombudsman@radio-canada.ca

5. Email the party leaders: Stephen Harper, Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe. Tell them to press the networks to include Elizabeth May.

6. Visit the Facebook pages of the party leaders, and write on their walls that you want them to demand Elizabeth May be in the debates.

7. Tweet your outrage! Use the hashtag #EMayIn.

8. Post about this on Facebook.

9. Tell your friends and family!

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Rick Mercer spoofs Green Party anti-attack ads

Iconic Canadian comedian Rick Mercer has done a brilliant spoof of the Green Party’s anti-attack ads! I love this so much I had to share. It gets in pretty much every funny stereotype about Greens. Tofu… generating electricity through people power… sandals… long-haired hippies… love it.

By the way, it’s worth nothing that the Green attack on attack ads currently has over 46,000 hits on YouTube. It was released last week. And as Maclean’s first pointed out, the Conservative attack on Ignatieff, released months ago, currently has only about 20,000 views. I think these numbers say a lot about how Canadians feel about attack-style politics.

Finally, if you haven’t signed the petition yet to get rid of paid political advertising in Canada, click here.

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The truth about attack ads: they’re destroying democracy

Wow! I’ve been absolutely thrilled by the overwhelming positive response to the Green Party’s attack on attack ads. Our Change the Channel on Attack Ads campaign went viral when it was launched on Monday. Over 36,000 views on YouTube at time of writing, and yesterday it was even listed under “Most Popular” on YouTube’s home page. In an online CBC poll, 88% of respondents said they dislike attack ads. A friend of mine said that it felt like a rare moment of victory in the “otherwise grim political mess” within which we are mired.

On Monday I promised a longer post on attack ads, and here it is. Consider this piece a response to the lame column penned by Jeffrey Simpson in today’s Globe, where he utterly misses the point. Although he acknowledges “the Greens are right in theory”, he takes the defeatist stance that attack ads are here to stay. Well, this is why they should go.

The truth of the matter is that attack ads contribute nothing to the national political discourse. Neither do they play a meaningful role in election day deliberations, and voters most certainly do not need political attack ads to help them make sophisticated, informed decisions at the ballot box.

The effect of these ads is decidedly detrimental. There’s no question, of course, that attack ads work – otherwise, politicians wouldn’t bother with them. It’s how they work that is the problem. Political attack ads chip away at in the essential underpinnings of any functional democracy – citizen engagement and participation. They don’t simply provide voters with helpful information upon which they can assess their political options – attack ads encourage voters not to vote at all, and trivialize political discourse.

But how does driving down voter turn out help a political party? Look again to the last election – the nastiest ads were run by the Harper Conservatives. The function of these ads was not to encourage voters to support the party that ran them. Rather, the point was to discourage voters from casting a ballot in the first place. An Angus Reid poll found that Conservative “roll-the-dice ads” on then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and his green tax shift plan may have persuaded 11% of Canadians not to vote at all. Even though some of those who stayed home were Conservative voters, the ads still delivered electoral advantage to the Conservatives, because about half a million more Liberal voters than Conservative voters didn’t bother to vote.

US researchers have linked exposure to negative ads with lower turnout in both local and national elections. This trend has appeared in Canada, too. Attack ads first became prominent in Canada in the 1993 federal election, when voter turn out was 72%. Only 15 years later, we see that voter turn out has plummeted to a record (and disturbing) low a mere 58% of eligible voters bothered to exercise their democratic right to vote in the October 2008 federal election.

And recently, the use of poisonous attack ads has ceased to be confined to the writ period. The Harper Conservatives have perfected the art of going negative between elections. Without election-time spending caps in play, the sky is the limit. They have also pioneered the use of personal attack ads against their (mostly) Liberal opponents, as a pre-writ, offensive move – an attempt to shape public opinion not simply on issues, but on personalities. Whatever your political leanings, I hope we can agree that the Dion “Not A Leader” ads, and the Ignatieff “Just Visiting” television ads were slanted personal attacks that were at once an embarrassment and did nothing to inform voters about the actual issues. Presenting an idea for honest discussion has intrinsic value, but personal attacks merely attempt to divert attention away from real problems.

So how do political parties get away with it? You may be surprised to learn they are exempt from broadcast advertising standards. That’s right – Tim Horton’s couldn’t run attack ads against Starbucks the way Harper can against his opponents. Shouldn’t political parties be held to a higher standard than coffee vendors?

Higher standards might help, but there’s a better solution. We should follow the lead of other countries like the UK, South Africa, Belgium, Chile, Sweden, Ireland, and more, and disallow political parties from running TV ads in the first place. If we don’t do something about attack ads soon, it won’t be long before Canadian politics looks even more like the vitriolic brand of politics we see south of the border – an atmosphere we see fueled year-round by biased, misleading, and personal attack ads.

People around the world are taking to the streets to take back democracy. Yet in Canada, our own democracy is being manipulated by backroom political operatives and spin doctors who seek pure partisan advantage, rather than dialogue on real issues. Democracy cannot function without an engaged electorate capable of honest debate on topics of importance. Attack ads are antithetical to this goal, and it’s time to send them packing.

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