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Canadian politics need a civility pledge

Andrew Scheer. Photo: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

During the three-week 2019 Alberta election, the only televised leaders' debate drew poor reviews. Viewers said they were turned off by all the arguing. Yet voter turnout reached 71 per cent, the highest level ever. And although the United Conservative Party (UCP) won a 72 per cent majority, Rachel Notley's NDP holds 24 (or 27 per cent) of the legislature seats. Historically, in the 1990s the NDP proved they can be quite effective in Opposition.

United Conservative Party (UCP) Leader (and soon-to-be premier) Jason Kenney ran a campaign that proved mainly that anger sells. Every time he sees a microphone, he's ready to fight someone. Anger can be contagious. It's energizing. Like Doug Ford's "buck a beer," anger is cheap, intoxicating and impairs people's judgment.

One way to unite a group of strangers is to encourage them to blame another group for some (real, impending or imagined) misfortune, as with U.S. President Trump's warnings about an "invasion" from Latin America. Another way to win voters, of course, is to promise the impossible. The UCP has done both.  

During the debate, Rachel Notley invited Jason Kenney to reply to charges that part of the reason he won the UCP leadership is that he paid a fake leadership candidate to attack his main rival. Rather than seize the chance to clear his name, he threatened her with a defamation lawsuit, calling her comments a "drive-by smear" and "fear and smear."  

"I'm really sorry that you believe that people talking about your record is somehow negative campaigning," Notley responded. "The leadership campaign of what you were a part is under RCMP investigation." 

Similarly, Canadian Labor Congress President Hassan Yussuff has called for federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to apologize for having appeared onstage with the Alberta Yellow Vests who are vocally anti-immigrant, reported the HuffPost. Another speaker on the same stage was Faith Goldy, whom the article called "the social media personality with white nationalist ties." 

Hassan Yussuff said, "For the leader of the Opposition not able to condemn them ... and stand on a stage with someone who is associated with hate and racism and somehow to not acknowledge that? ... That is a fundamental, I think, failing on his part, and I condemn his behaviour."  

When CBC asked Andrew Scheer how he responds to complaints that his speaking at the event could be seen as being soft on Islamophobia, he simply denied it. He said, "I respond by pointing out that the criticisms are baseless."  

If the Alberta election is any indication, then the upcoming federal election is shaping up as the murkiest, yuckiest, nastiest campaign Canada has seen in decades. But it doesn't have to be that way. With the federal election still months away, citizens have time to set the house rules for election debate in advance.  If the government won't enact election reform, the people can.

For example, non-partisan non-profit groups (faith groups, human rights groups, unions, educator groups) could call on every party and candidate to sign a pledge to conduct a civil campaign. In light of government warnings that Russia and perhaps China are likely to try to sow disruption and divisiveness during the upcoming federal election, candidates might well benefit from putting their views on the record before the election starts.

The civility pledge idea comes from the Calgary Interfaith Council, which last February, invited all the members of local congregations to sign a civility pledge during Interfaith Harmony Week.  Individuals and congregations pledged to be civil when working with one another. 

"The Calgary Interfaith Council functions on the principle that listening, caring, and engaging others with respect and humility are essential to building healthy and harmonious relationships among people of all faiths and  backgrounds," explained the council's message. "Civility makes it safe for us to live together and learn to celebrate  our differences so that we may experience the benefits of diversity." 
 
The CIC Civility Pledge has 10 points, which include:

  • 1. I pledge to embrace the principle that all people are created equal and that each person possesses inherent dignity and goodness.
  • 2. I pledge to encourage genuine dialogue with people who identify as minorities in order to enhance community inclusiveness. ...
  • 5. I pledge to renounce stereotyping and prejudices, including those based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex or gender, and ability....
  • 8. I pledge to impart my views with honesty and sincerity on the basis of mutual trust without compromising my faith or principles...

At the very least, the CIC pledge could serve as a model for an election civility pledge, or it could be used as it is, if the CIC is willing to allow public use. Individuals and religious and civil society organizations could invite every candidate and every political party to sign the pledge, and then hold them to it. Most Canadian candidates probably would see the value in striving for some courtesy in debates. On the other hand, a candidate who declined to sign the civility pledge would have a lot of explaining to do.

For 2019, an election civility pledge might include clauses on reconciliation and on the climate crisis. Here are a couple of rough draft resolutions for illustration.

"I pledge to acknowledge and welcome the First Peoples of my territory as partners in Canada's social and economic development."     

"I pledge to reduce my own impact on the environment and to urge legislation drastically reducing carbon emissions from industries and transportation."   

Perhaps including these points would have a partisan effect. However, both aspirations are already Canadian law. At any rate, the Alberta election showed that platform oration standards seem to be slipping, permitting name-calling and innuendo. Threatened with a defamation suit over his comments about Justin Trudeau, Scheer repeated those comments outside the House of Commons. What's next, another boxing match?  

Please! Let's have an election civility pledge posted online, with a way to track which candidates have signed it, and which have refused. That way, voters can decide for themselves whether to support which candidate to support -- one who prescribes action to avert the climate crisis while protecting peoples' livelihoods, or one who has nothing to sell but anger.

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004–2013.

Photo: Andrew Scheer/Flickr  

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