Personally, I find nothing that’s basically more vile in “attack” ads or negative campaign ads than in any type of political ad. Voters have a right to know the down side of their candidates and leaders should expect to be attacked. The only issue is whether ads are informative or deceptive, and that holds equally for a smarmy pitch about how warm and sweatery the candidate is and how his or her policies will rescue the economy.

In the current avalanche of Conservative attack ads against Michael Ignatieff, one theme is that he’s “just visiting” Canada, because he lived elsewhere for 34 years. I do find that kind of humiliating, but in his defence, it probably wasn’t his idea to return and run the country; it came from a cabal of Liberal Party heavies. There’s always been a self-putdown component among Canada’s elites. Linda McQuaig says when she interviewed Moody’s bond rater for Canada, he told her with surprise that the only national business leaders who regularly demanded a down grade were the Canadians. At any rate, the guy’s been back for a few years and besides, some humiliation is good for the soul.

But there’s another element in the ads that sticks better, and may be responsible for this week’s levelling-off in Liberal support: Mr. Ignatieff’s past claims that he was an American. The ads show him in a clip: “You have to decide what kind of America you want … It’s your country just as much as it is mine.” This is not an isolated aberration. In a New York Times article just five years ago, he wrote “we,” meaning Americans, six times in a single paragraph, and throughout.

That’s pretty blatant misrepresentation and raises the question: Why did he do it, repeatedly? The answer matters to voters who have to choose.

It could be because he’s a liar or delusional — neither of which would necessarily disqualify a person from leading his country and even leading it well. But citizens have a right to know what they’re getting. Is he forgetful, or on some medication that makes him go in and out of a foreign identity?

So far, he hasn’t responded to this point in the ads. He’s said the issue doesn’t count as much as the economic crisis, which is true but doesn’t answer the question. And he’s warned Stephen Harper: “If you mess with me, I will mess with you until I’m done,” which in fact does reveal something — swaggering, juvenile and unexpectedly Harperesque — about the Leader of the Opposition.

He could say: It was immature and dishonest but I thought it would help me get ahead in the United States. He said something like it to Peter C. Newman in 2006. Then he might benefit from the silly old saw that says “It takes a big man to admit he’s wrong.” No matter how lame his answer, he’d still have his political ace in the hole: He’s not Stephen Harper. It would still work for him in the next election. Or some voters might decide to shift their votes to the NDP. That could lead to a different result: a minority Liberal government with NDP backing. Those governments aren’t unstable or unworkable. In the case of Mr. Harper’s minority, he simply couldn’t work with anyone. He’s too far right of the voting consensus. The other parties could, and have, co-operated.

It’s like the sad case of Brian Mulroney. The question to him was: Why did he take cash, secretively? In six days of testimony before the Oliphant commission, he never answered. He said he made a mistake he regretted and I’ll bet he does, but the question wasn’t: Are you sorry you did it? It was: Why did you do it? Not answering implies there is something to hide, and leaves everyone free to speculate what the motive might have been. You don’t answer the question — more questions get raised. So go on, Iggy. Answer the question. You’re defined not just by the answers you give, but by the questions you duck.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.