In Canada mean-spiritedness can lose elections
October 20, 2023
A well-respected politician once told me that governments lose elections if voters consider them too mean-spirited. Those words have always resonated, particularly during the final weeks of the recent Manitoba election when the Conservatives engaged in a negative media campaign. Negative campaigns are often only tolerated if they don’t go too far.
The Manitoba campaign featured one ad that promoted the government’s decision not to search a landfill site for the bodies of two First Nations women believed to be victims of a serial killer who has disposed of victims in such places.
Premier Heather Stefanson, flanked by a number of colleagues running for re-election, publicly defended the decision on the grounds that the search would be too costly (up to $184 million) and too dangerous given the site’s toxicity.
A second ad targeted NDP Leader Wab Kinew, now the premier-elect of the province, and eight other NDP candidates. The ad questioned Kinew’s ability to lead Manitoba by raising past charges against him, including driving under the influence and assaulting a taxi driver.
Kinew had previously spoken publicly about his turbulent youth and had been pardoned by the Parole Board of Canada in 2016 for those offences and two breaches of court orders.
Both ads smacked of American-style politics and desperation. The first ad was decried as insensitive and campaigning on a tragic issue. The second ad was disparaging and disrespectful.
Together the ads appeared mean-spirited. One commentator said the Conservative ad campaign was “nastier and more vicious” than past campaigns and an attempt to win “almost at any cost.”
Research is divided over the effects of negative ad campaigns on democracy. A 2009 study found that negative ads can cause voters to take more interest during elections and learn about issues and candidates. On the other hand, other research has found that campaigns that go too negative may discourage and disincentivize voters.
But what is too negative? Observational evidence from Canada suggests there are some lines that should not be crossed.
Voters recoil from campaigns when the rhetoric trivializes, denigrates or comes at the expense of vulnerable groups. The Manitoba ads regarding the Conservatives’ decision not to search the Prairie Green landfill prioritized fiscal prudence, leaving voters with the horrific image of someone’s children or sisters abandoned in a filthy grave after suffering a terrible death.
In a similar vein, the federal Conservatives learned during the 2015 election campaign how quickly public sentiment can turn against a government and its policies after a picture emerged of a young Syrian refugee boy lying washed up on a beach.
The photo had become the human face of the Syrian refugee crisis globally just as Stephen Harper’s government was promoting more restrictive immigration policies compared to opposition parties calling for welcoming more refugees.
Both the federal and provincial Conservative governments lost power.
Canadians more empathetic?
In contrast to Americans, Canadian elections over the past few decades suggest Canadian voters seem to sympathize with leaders who are flawed but have worked to overcome personal challenges.
Kinew had atoned for his past mistakes and learned from them to go on and live a successful life as a proud Indigenous father, community leader and politician. The ads against him seemed like cheap shots rather than fair criticism.
This lesson is not new. The 2018 Liberal ads attacking Conservative policies and implying Doug Ford was unsuitable to be premier backfired in the face of Ford’s image as an everyday guy who understood what people felt and who had stood by a troubled brother.
In 2003, the federal Conservatives had to pull ads that mocked Jean Chrétien’s style of speaking out of one side of his mouth when he publicly announced it was due to having Bell’s palsy as a child.
Bloc Québecois Leader Lucien Bouchard’s public reputation was enhanced significantly after overcoming necrotizing fasciitis, the flesh-eating illness.
This reputation damage or enhancement works retroactively. History was forgiving when it came to the drinking habits of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, but when his policy decisions became linked to atrocities in residential schools, his reputation took a posthumous hit.
While Canadians will tolerate what is perceived as negative but fair criticism in an election campaign, the Manitoba election is the latest to suggest they won’t accept a government or party that goes too far. Mean-spiritedness can clearly lose elections in Canada.
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