Vote for maturity and civility

With the election just days away, it's not enough to declare that contemporary Canadian politics is disgusting. You need to show it. So allow me to empty upon you a bucket of slop from my e-mail inbox. It contains a lumpy mess of campaign-driven press releases the parties send out to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in a concerted and largely successful effort to prove that they are as shallow as they are mean. They manage to hit one another with a fair quantity of well-aimed mud but rarely succeed in ducking what's coming back at them, and not infrequently wipe their filthy hands on their own clothes without seeming to notice it.

For instance, the Liberals had every right to point out that Stephen Harper's March 20, 2003 speech on Iraq contained an embarrassing amount of cutting and pasting from remarks by then-Australian prime minister John Howard two days earlier. But after a Conservative staffer confessed to having been "overzealous in copying segments" of Mr. Howard's speech and resigned, the Liberals put out another, thoroughly revolting, press release saying "The story does not add up, and took seven hours to concoct" as though it were self-evidently the deliberate policy of the PM to plagiarize.

Of course it is also appalling that Mr. Harper had harried staff slap stuff together for him on a topic of such importance. And how about the Liberals catching Jack Layton assuring CTV that when NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair advocated water exports years ago he only meant bottled water despite clear evidence to the contrary from the Quebec National Assembly's Journal of Debates? I do not know whether Mr. Layton made up a fib on the spot, was misled by Mr. Mulcair or just accepted a flip assurance from a junior staffer. But I do know he didn't bother finding out the truth before saying whatever sounded good.

It seems they're all willing to say just anything, provided it isn't sincere, clever or in tune with the public mood. Read the titles of four press releases I got within hours of the English-language leaders' debate, plainly written before the debate even started: "Harper reassures Canadians with plan for economy," "Jack Layton dominates English debate," "Dion stands out as only leader with a plan for the economy," "Elizabeth May wins English debate." For bad measure the Greens had earlier told me "Elizabeth May wins French debate" and later described her as "Fresh from victories in the national televised leaders' debates last week." Who do any of the parties think this stuff impresses? Who do they even think reads it? And haven't our politicians got anything less redolent of the frat house to say?

I get dozens of such missives a week and on the whole I find the accusations that other parties are making unsound policy on the fly convincing. It's the tone of angry self-satisfaction that I find not merely unjustified but actively disgraceful, given public disenchantment with the whole business. OK, guys. You got them, and they got you. But we got nothing.

I am put in mind of an observation by Alexis de Tocqueville that when politics seems stagnant, it "is the time for intrigues and small parties ... great political parties are those more attached to principles than to consequences, to generalities rather than to particular cases, to ideas rather than to personalities ... small parties are generally without political faith. ... They glow with a factious zeal. ... The means they employ are as disreputable as the aim sought."

Thus this election confronts me with a new version of a familiar dilemma. It's not that I'm puzzled how to vote when my ballot seems unlikely to be decisive nationally or even in my riding; that's normal. Nor is it how to vote "strategically"; all voting is strategic. The novel problem is finding a sensible strategy for voting for decency, since no party has attractive policies and all have a repellent political style. I would sooner watch crows squabble over road kill for two hours than our leaders at a table interrupting, talking over one another and jabbing fingers incessantly.

The question is, how do you vote for decency under such circumstances? In a few ridings you have the happy choice of supporting an incumbent who seems to be part of the solution rather than the problem. In others, I say, the less happy but equally clear obligation is to try to vote out the appallingly rude incumbent regardless of doubt about the civility of any possible replacement.

Yes, our politics is disgusting. To help clean it up, on Oct. 14 vote for the person in your riding you expect is most dismayed not at their opponents' vitriol, but at the sludge pouring out of their own camp.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, PoliticsJohn Robson