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Canadian Politics is a Mess. What has gone wrong?

By: Luke Montalbano

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Leader of the Official Opposition Pierre Poilievre have exchanged bitter words with each other even before the latter was elected leader of the Conservative Party. The vitriol that fuels their parliamentary debates now defines federal politics. Image Credit: The Globe and Mail.

It seems as if anger politics–the use of negative messaging to drive one’s political support–has reached a peak in presence in Canadian federal politics. Although it is certainly indisputable that negative messaging is inherent to the political scene, it seems now more than ever it has become the “go-to” medium for a political campaign regardless of party or ideology. This trend is no better exemplified in Canada than in recent exchanges in the House of Commons, which feels more like a high school debate club than the upper echelons of government. The question must be asked: how have Canadian politics degraded so much that one cannot go a day without reading about an angry exchange between MPs, party leaders, or even ideologically opposed journalists?

As mentioned earlier, anger politics is not a novel invention in Canada; it has quite obviously existed ever since the formation of Canada as a governing state in 1867. John A. MacDonald and his political arch-rival George Brown engaged heavily in vitriolic behavior, with a general inclination to use ad hominem attacks against each other’s character when campaigning or publishing.

There have been periods in Canadian political history, however, in which political opponents have engaged relatively civilly. The latter half of the twentieth century was arguably the golden age of Canadian political leadership with strong (but not necessarily popular) Prime Ministers, such as Brian Mulroney and Lester Pearson. It must be noted that the tenures of these Prime Ministers were not without their vitriol. Indeed, for all my praise of Prime Minister Mulroney, I must concede that at times, particularly in the final three years of his tenure, polarisation flared up across Canada. Nevertheless, when we recall these leaders, we generally tend to think of them as statesmen at the forefront of developing a new path forward for Canada; it would certainly be absurd to believe that many Canadians think of our current political climate as statesman-like. The ultimate answer to why Canadian politics are beginning to feel childish and messy is simply a result of incompetent leadership in federal parties.

Rather than seeking to branch out through policy proposals to swing voters, it seems as if virtually all federal leaders have latched onto the time-tested strategy of negative messaging to drive voter turnout of the so-called “base”–the section of voters that will always support the party regardless of leader or political climate. Such negative messaging need not necessarily include reference to facts or statistics but simply requires platitudes that appeal to the base. At the present moment, it appears to be working.

The Liberal Party has seemingly taken a different approach to campaigning in recent months. Prior to 2023, it was natural for the Liberal Party and for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically to avoid negative messaging during periods outside of election season. In recent months, this strategy has changed drastically. Negative messaging now seems to hold a substantially larger role within Liberal Party communications, with even the Prime Minister taking up attacks against opposition parties more consistently than before. According to an Angus Reid poll, this strategy is working. Despite Trudeau being wildly unpopular amongst the Canadian voting public, about 80% of the Liberal Party approves of tenure.

This dichotomy between the public’s view of and the Liberal membership’s view of the leadership of the party is mirrored almost in lockstep by the Conservative Party. At the present moment, the Conservative Party of Canada is polling to win the most seats, but the leader, Pierre Poilievre remains unpopular outside of the Conservative Party. According to the Angus Reid Institute, has a negative aggregate favorability rating amongst all Canadians of -14% (50% unfavorable to 36% favorable) but a positive aggregate favorability rating amongst Conservative Party members of +66% (13% unfavorable to 79% favorable).

Although my assertion is certainly one of correlation, it is not imperceptible that the growth of negative messaging has certainly played an important role in such a dichotomy of leadership favorability between the voting public and party membership. There is certainly a great multitude of other factors to consider outside of what has already been mentioned, but it is important to consider the increasing role of vitriolic “anger” politics in Canada and how it impacts the way in which our political leaders conduct themselves.

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