Dirty political tricks undermine democratic process

"people are listening, watching, reading and taking an active role in deciding the future of their hometowns."

With the swearing in of new councils and mayors across our region, it was refreshing to see such strong voter turnout in many local communities.

To me, that says people are listening, watching, reading and taking an active role in deciding the future of their hometowns.

They’ve also made their point that we must work with not against our neighbours if we want to continue enjoying our little corner of paradise.

That’s a great sign about the future of municipal politics and the role citizens play in it.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said on the federal level.

Revelations this week that a Conservative party “operative,” which must be another word for spy, secretly recorded a conversation involving a Liberal candidate in hopes of leaking it to the media and providing fodder for federal politicians to denounce an opposing party’s viewpoint is yet another sign of how far our political discourse has fallen on the national level.

Of course Canadians witnessed several previews to this type of thing in the last American election including a moment when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was secretly recorded at a fundraiser claiming a section of the population won’t vote for him.

It was leaked to the media, Democrats jumped on the opportunity to chastise Romney and another nail was put in the coffin of his presidential aspirations.

So the fact that the Conservative party is stooping to such tactics is certainly no surprise.

Oddly enough even though Sun Media (Canada’s version of Fox News) retracted the story, after someone else claimed to have made the comments attributed to the Liberal candidate, the Tory MPs in Ottawa so far refused to do so.

The character assassination was done and the work complete. No need to apologize.

The unfortunate consequence of the actions of the MPs and the Conservative operative is that it undermines credible discussion between a candidate and constituents.

I doubt we’ll see forums, such as municipal ones in Warfield, Trail or Fruitvale, where candidates are asked for their frank opinions on issues.

Suddenly any federal candidate must be on guard that someone is trying to entrap them by goading them into embarrassing comments.

Suddenly what should be an honest discourse between a voter and candidate will be viewed suspiciously by the candidate’s handlers unless the question comes from someone fully vetted and cleared of any other party affiliation.

Suddenly our rights to question our representatives will be under scrutiny not for the answer it might elicit but for the source of the question.

The entire issue of dirty tricks is nothing new to federal politics. However, it has been ramped up in the last couple of decades as parties import the American-style of campaigning. The strategy is “don’t offer anything new but criticize and attack anything your opponent wants to say.”

Which brings us the federal election on the horizon.

As editor at the Trail Times, I’m already seeing the consequences of the redrawn electoral boundary that splits Greater Trail from Nelson, Salmo and Kaslo and throws us into a district with Penticton.

Okanagan citizens with their own political interests are beginning to post comments on the Trail Times Facebook page or send in letters to the editor in hopes of swaying voters to see their point. People who would normally look west from the Okanagan suddenly have a vested interest in shaping opinions in Trail or Nakusp.

I guess that’s fair game, since we’re all “political bedfellows” as one writer put it. And it’s only going to grow as the election nears.

Since all three major party candidates are from the Penticton region and the vast distances they would be forced to travel to campaign face-to-face with voters, the quickest, cheapest and easiest way for supporters to connect with voters is to send letters to newspapers.

Although connecting with voters via the media is certainly one way to pitch a platform or denounce an opponent, it’s a sad commentary that face-to-face discussion is becoming harder to do.

Not only is the travel a hurdle, but also candidates now must be aware of who is in the crowd, who is asking the question and what is their purpose at the meeting.

It’s a sad day for democracy when candidates start getting suspicious of a citizen’s intent. But with “operatives” looking for a gotcha moment on an opponent or a party helper using robocalls to mis-direct voters at the polling station or a candidate’s handlers lying about fundraising to circumvent election laws, we all lose.

I certainly don’t expect the trend to end, especially now that our riding includes a big population centre like Penticton.

Much like the recent municipal elections in the Lower Mainland, large population centres tend to generate special-interest groups bent on pushing a particular agenda.

And with that Conservative territory vying for votes in the NDP stronghold in the West Kootenay, who knows how campaigning will play out.

But if an open public meeting in Canmore, Alta., can turn into a scene of political underhandedness that plays out in the national media and on Parliament Hill, then, sadly, no region is immune.

Guy Bertrand is the managing editor of the Trail Times.