In politics smears have a tendency to work. That’s why attack ads and mudslinging are the norm down south, and a growing trend here. It doesn’t really matter if an accusation is true, studies have shown that people are far more likely to pay attention to the original, shocking, smear than to any subsequent correction.
With the debut of Fox News North (aka Sun News) and the success of Stephen Harper’s cheap shot politics, it’s fair to wonder if our smug sense of superiority about the gullibility of our neighbors to the south is warranted. Sure Canadians don’t believe that Saddam was responsible for 9/11, or that Obama is a closet Muslim who was born in Kenya, but smears which grasp a kernel of truth and distort it beyond recognition have had some measure of success in Canada. These kind of smears are the hardest to combat, as refuting them requires placing this kernel of truth in context, rather than simply explaining that Politician A is not, in fact, in the habit of dining on kittens.
A good example is the brouhaha about interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel’s “sovereigntist ties”. Sure she’s a life long federalist who voted No in both referendums and held a variety of senior positions in the NDP in the 90’s. Sure Quebeckers to the left of Jean Charest’s ConservaLiberals have to choose between the PQ and Quebec Solidaire, with QS being the far less sovereigntist option, and sure the Bloc has been more about social policy than sovereignty for the better part of a decade, but we’ll call her a sovereigntist anyway and hope it sticks!
I have to admit, I was a little concerned that my fellow Canadians might miss the context and buy into the Con smear job. I should have had more faith in the population of this wonderful country.
Two polls released today, one by Angus Reid and another by Harris/Decima, provide a comforting reminder that Canadians are not nearly as stupid and gullible as Stephen Harper seems to think we are. After a solid week of misrepresentation and distortion in the mainstream media; of a virtual press blackout on the facts of life in Quebec politics; of a parade of right wing commentators gleefully predicting the end of the NDP; and of Liberals jumping on the bandwagon to condemn her for briefly being a member of the Bloc, while their own leader led another party, Canadians responded “So what?”
It was, and remains, inevitable that the establishment in this country would pull out all the stops to destroy the NDP. Heaven forbid that a party which actually cares about people accede to government, they might do something crazy, like raise taxes on major corporations (already among the lowest in North America) and lower them for small businesses (who are the only ones that actually use tax cuts to create jobs).
But Canadians have rejected the elites’ consensus. They’ve dug below the surface and refused to allow Harper to divide us against each other. I’m really proud of my country today.
The top line on the Angus Reid poll is this: Cons 39, NDP 31, Liberals 19. Not much change from election day. But the really fascinating stuff is buried in the report. For starters, the NDP lead in every region of the country, except Ontario and Alberta. They’ve posted big gains in the Atlantic provinces, the Prairies and B.C., while slipping a bit in Quebec to 35% (down about 5%) to account for their remaining at 31% nationally. The Quebec number is a natural leveling out of support after a surge, and should hold steady if not go up. More importantly, they may have dipped on the absence of Jack, but Quebeckers certainly don’t care about Turmel’s past.
Meanwhile, 87% of those who voted NDP in the last election would do so again, a voter retention rate second only to the Conservatives’ 91%. Only 70% of those who voted Liberal would do so again, and 20% of Liberal voters now say they would vote NDP, a number sure to cause many sleepless nights in the Liberal camp. So the NDP have solidified their hold on the voters they captured on May 2, while making serious inroads with the Liberal voters they need to win over in order to form government in four years.
On the question of approval for the performance of each leader, Harper leads at -1, followed by Turmel at -6 and Rae at -10. That’s right, despite the sovereigntist smear, Canadians still think less of Bob Rae’s performance as leader than they do of Turmel’s.
On the so-called momentum score, which asks whether respondents’ views of the leaders have improved, stayed the same or worsened over the past month, Turmel scores a -12, while Harper comes in at -10 and Rae at -6. This is a shockingly good score for Turmel, given that in the weeks before this poll was conducted every second press story was about what a terrible person she was.
When the same question is applied to political parties, as distinct from their leader, the results are stunning. The NDP come in even, with as many Canadians opinion of the party improving as worsening, followed by the Conservatives at -11 and the Liberals at -25.
Despite an all out media assault, the NDP has come through the summer completely unscathed, while the Liberals are in free fall. I can imagine sales of Tums are at an all time high in the vicinity of Liberal offices.
Returning to the question of Nycole Turmel, and her past affiliation with the Bloc and Quebec Solidaire, the Angus Reid poll finds that 41% of Canadians are somewhat or very concerned about the issue, as opposed to 51% who are unconcerned. Most interesting in this number however, is the breakdown of respondents according to party affiliation. While 60% of Conservative supporters are concerned, only 29% of NDP supporters are, with only 8% registering as very concerned. On the question of whether the NDP should replace Turmel, the numbers are virtually identical.
Meanwhile, the numbers in the Harris/Decima survey are even more heartening for the NDP. A whopping 71% of Canadians consider Turmel’s past memberships in the Bloc and Quebec Solidaire to be either a minor issue (27%) or not an issue (46%) with 89% of NDP supporters feeling this way. On the question of whether she should be replaced as leader, 53% of Canadians feel she should stay, while only 25% feel she should be replaced. In Quebec 70% want her to remain, with only 13% thinking she should leave.
Allan Gregg, the chairman of Harris/Decima, put it about as well as I’ve seen:
What there is, I think, in English Canada by and large is indifference and in Quebec I think it’s a much more studied view: what is the controversy? The only people who haven’t flirted with the notion of being a supporter of the BQ at one time or another are terrified anglophones, It’s really not that radical a position to take and that seems to be the reflex view of the Quebecers in the poll.
All of this while Canadians only impression of Nycole Turmel has been a relentless smear campaign. Imagine where these numbers will be when she is finally allowed to bring her apparently stellar intelligence, savvy and leadership skills to the fore?
A pundit remarked in a recent column that rather than an error, perhaps Jack Layton had made a shrewd political gamble by elevating Turmel. That perhaps his intention was to force Canadians to confront their perceptions of Quebec, it’s place in the federation and the realities of Quebec politics. If so, he chose a risky road, but one which could ultimately bring us together as a country and help us to better understand each other.
If so, Layton chose to believe the best of Canadians, and put his faith in our fairness, intelligence and compassion. Stephen Harper meanwhile, bet on the worst of our natures. Holding that our pettiness, our fear, and our distrust of the other would allow him to once again divide us against one another.
I’m happy to say that Harper lost his bet, and the Liberals, by jumping on board the character assassination train, spectacularly so. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t share Jack’s unwavering confidence in my fellow Canadians. It’s a mistake I won’t make again.
Today we are stronger and more united as a country, and the NDP are reaping the just rewards of trying to build this country, rather than tear it apart. There will be more attacks, more smears over the next four years, but today I believe Harper is coming to grips with an unsettling reality: the NDP are made of sterner stuff than the Liberal leaders he beat bloody, and he’ll have to do better, much better, if he wants to knock a dipper down.
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