Down to the dirt

Lana Payne
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A Conservative senator calls a senior political reporter a bitch for doing her job. A cabinet minister calls a deputy premier a complete and utter asshole.

No, sadly, this is not a screenplay from a poorly written television soap opera about politics.

Rather, welcome to another week in Canadian federal politics where name-calling and nastiness have been so normalized that most of us have become desensitized to what is totally unacceptable behavior.

And perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the goal by those who practice such dumbing-down of public debate with their sometimes sexist, most times offensive, comments is to reinforce a distaste of politics, to perversely turn people off, to bolster disengagement.

After all, a disengaged electorate is less likely to expect anything better from their politicians.

In the first case, Jennifer Ditchburn, a senior political reporter for The Canadian Press, wrote a straight-up news story about absenteeism in the Senate.

A legitimate news story about a legitimate issue.

She wrote that Patrick Brazeau, Canada’s youngest senator at age 37 (appointed by Stephen Harper in 2008), missed 25 per cent of Senate sitting days between June 2011 and April 2012. The senator also missed 65 per cent of the meetings of the Aboriginal Peoples Committee on which he sits.

Ditchburn gave the senator an opportunity to comment or explain before writing her story.

In fact, Brazeau issued his comments through an email.

Ditchburn, in turn, quoted his response verbatim in her story.

But alas, the senator did not like the facts being reported and on Twitter called Ditchburn a nasty name.

A firestorm, or twitterstorm, erupted, and soon Brazeau, known on Twitter as @TheBrazman, was issuing the typical “qualified” and reluctant apology. It was another in a long list of reluctant political apologies.

Then there’s Jason Kenney. The minister of citizenship and immigration did not apologize quickly or publicly for his latest transgression.

He took his sweet time before apologizing to Alberta’s deputy premier, Tom Lukaszuk, for calling him a “complete and utter asshole.” This was discovered because Kenney accidently hit “reply all” on an email. Kenney, apparently, took exception to the fact that Lukaszuk disagreed with the federal government on a matter of policy. In this case it was Ottawa’s reliance on temporary foreign workers to fill labour and skills gaps in Canada’s labour market.

Report facts. Disagree on policy. It doesn’t take much to end up in the crosshairs of the Harper Conservative bullying tactics and personal attacks. After all, insults are far easier to deliver than having to actually argue the merits of one’s position.

If the Harper government views you as a larger threat to their world order, such as they do with unions, environmental groups and

some charities, then the bullying becomes more serious than name-calling. It is delivered in the form of legislation designed to silence and stifle debate, or destroy their opponents.

Alex Himelfarb, Canada’s former top civil servant, reminds me that this is what American writer and university professor, Benjamin DeMott, referred to as “junk politics.”

Himelfarb, the director of the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs with York University, who writes a blog on public policy and affairs, inequality and politics, says the American scholar and cultural critic was not calling for more civility or even politer politics. “His concern with contemporary politics (was) bigger than that; it resides in its refusal to lead citizens to higher ground, to challenge us, to inspire us to find our better selves. Instead, it panders to our worst sentiments, personalizes everything, derides experts and evidence, tells us that we are great as we are, that we have every right to feel morally superior. It divides the world up into good and bad, black and white.”

Junk politics captures “how personal and nasty politics has become — experts are ridiculed, evidence is disregarded, dissenters are pilloried, meaningful public discourse is avoided at all costs.”

Anyone who pays attention anymore to federal Canadian politics knows that junk politics is not restricted to the United States. It perfectly describes how the Harper Conservatives conduct themselves, as well.

The result? Politics is a lot nastier. Public discourse continues to reach new lows. And name-calling and bullying replaces smart debate. It becomes the normal.

I asked my 11-year-old her thoughts on the name-calling and the bullying. It is, after all, the subject of much discussion in our schools. Her reply? “Well, Mom, some people think they are just special” and don’t have to follow the rules.

The federal Conservatives have been re-writing the rules of public discourse. I believe Canadians are smarter than those who practice junk politics give us credit for.

We must collectively continue to show we will not tolerate their trash talking or their dumbing-down of political discourse.

We don’t tolerate bullies in school yards and we shouldn’t tolerate them in politics, either.


Lana Payne is president of the

Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at

Her column returns July 14.

Organizations: Canadian Press, Aboriginal Peoples Committee, Glendon School of Public and International Affairs York University Harper Conservatives Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Canada, Alberta, Ottawa United States

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Recent comments

  • Edward Power
    July 02, 2012 - 13:32

    Carl either has a very short memory, or is unable to grasp the difference between an occassional emotional outburst and the systemic verbal and written abuse people who oppose the Conservative Party - citizens, politicians, scientists, educators, bureaucrats, etc. - are subjected to. Soon enough their arrogance will wear thin and they will be sent packing, with fat pensions in hand, to wreak havoc elsewhere.

    • Carl
      July 04, 2012 - 13:57

      @Edward: Can you give an example of a quote in which a federal Conservative politician under the current government has maligned or verbally abused a "citizen, scientist, educator, bureaucrat, etc?" Or are you just parroting Liberal and NDP talking points you have heard? There is a big difference between condemning someone's views or policies or behaviour and "verbally abusing" them. I can cite a very long list of obscenely abusive comments (and gestures) by Liberal and NDP MPs. In addition to those I have already cited, let's look at some more recent examples: Two Liberal MPs reportedly gave Nazi salutes in the direction of the PM while sitting in the House of Commons. Liberal MP Hedy Fry falsely accused the citizens of Prince George BC of burning crosses on their lawns. NDP MP Yvon Godin responded to the sick murder and mutilation case in Montreal by saying that the mailing of the victim's foot to Conservative HQ in Ottawa represented the fact that many Canadians are unhappy with the current government. NDP MP Pat Martin alone has used more profane and abusive language toward all kinds of people than the entire Conservative caucus combined. He told two separate citizens who disagreed with him to "f*** off" and "eat my shorts", and called a University of Laval Economics Professor a "d**khead", and he is being sued for falsely stating that a private company had engaged in criminal activity and calling its employees names. For good measure, I'll toss in the comments by Liberal MP John McCallum and Leader Michael Ignatieff among other opposition MPs, asserting repeatedly that Canadians soldiers were "committing war crimes" in Afghanistan - an assertion that has just been declared entirely false by an independent panel looking into the handling of Afghan detainees by our troops. I can't think of anything said by a current Conservative politician that even comes close to these comments by Liberal and NDP members.

  • Carl
    July 02, 2012 - 00:29

    Since Payne apparently can't suppress her partisan bias, she should at least disclose it in each article - she is an active member of the NDP. That's why she only writes about inappropriate comments by Conservatives, as if they invented profanity. Where was Payne's article about NDP MP Pat Martin's use of the f-word on Twitter a couple of months ago? How about Justin Trudeau calling a Minister a "piece of s**t" in the House of Commons recently? Of course, Trudeau was just following in his daddy's footsteps - Pierre Trudeau told Newfoundland MP John Lundrigan to f**k off in the House of Commons 40 years ago (because Lundrigan dared to ask a question about Trudeau's Unemployment Insurance policies). Pierre Trudeau also gave the finger to western Canadian farmers. At least Kenney didn't make his comment publicly, unlike all the NDP and Liberal politicians I have mentioned here.