By-elections are sometimes a chance to preview the strategies and tone of any future, general election campaign. If that's the case with regard to the by-elections currently under way, I think it's worth paying some very close attention to some of the tactics on display. Politicians get away with this garbage when people are tuned out and disinterested. If you want a higher level of discourse from your politicians, you have some responsibility to keep them honest too.
I'm talking in particular of a disgraceful little episode involving the Winnipeg Free Press this week. How the Free Press participated in the mud-dive is probably another story in itself, but let's look at what we do know:
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff gave an interview to the Free Press, in which he delivered some remarks that the paper (for who knows what reason) twisted into a racist slur against the Filipino community in Winnipeg. Ignatieff was slammed in an editorial. Highly unusually (and bravely), a Winnipeg Free Press reporter wrote a story to assert that Ignatieff had not said what the editorial alleged. The Liberals issued a transcript of the interview. The Winnipeg Free Press formally apologized and retracted.
But the Conservatives have decided to ignore the apology and retraction, and repeatedly are issuing statements to condemn Ignatieff for his alleged slur against Filipinos. Why? Because they think it will work. Backbenchers such as Shelley Glover and Joy Smith have used their time in the Commons before Question Period to condemn Ignatieff as a foe of tolerance and the Filipino community. Political operatives may have many names for this tactic, but you know what your parents would call it if you tried it in the schoolyard and you probably have a vague idea how it would be treated in a court of law. And don't get me started on how this would be treated in a church, which many of these government MPs purport to embrace.
Once upon a time, the Commons was regarded as equivalent to a legal forum; people didn't deliberately tell mistruths in there. Contempt for political foes is one thing -- contempt for the institution is breath-taking.
And just to put the icing on the cake, Glover also used a government announcement yesterday to accuse Ignatieff of advocating marijuana use for young people, again, exploiting a cynical twist on partial quotes. Your taxpayer dollars paid for that news conference; you should be demanding that the Conservative party foot part of the bill.
I don't particularly care who wins the by-elections, but as a long-time observer of politics, I can tell you that this isn't business as usual. If this is the kind of campaigning that is allowed to stand, if we just shrug, Canada will get the base, cynical politics it deserves.