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Only We Can Put an End to Ugly Politics

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Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, had some tough talk for the Economic Club of Canada in Ottawa today. He said that we must "maintain trust and engagement in Canadian elections."

Indeed we must. Mayrand and his colleagues -- all dedicated public servants -- are obviously intent on getting to the bottom of the record number of complaints from across the country. They must. The trust we must have in our system depends on it.

They know full well that the "robocall" incident in Guelph involving "Pierre Poutine" only scratches the surface of the very ugly underbelly of the tactics used by the army of political operators that make a healthy living doing this.

As a first time candidate, I have been the target of many. My Conservative Party opponent, his campaign, and people associated with it spread falsehoods and outright lies about me. I sued him and he was forced to apologize. But that came a full year after the election. The well had been poisoned and the damage was done.

Liberal and soft NDP supporters in my riding had received fundraising calls from people purporting to represent me. These people had received calls at 7:00 a.m. on weekends! Of course, my campaign or the Liberal Party of Canada made no such calls, nor would we be stupid enough to do that. But try telling that to the angry constituent picking up the phone early in the morning on their day off.

These same people and many others received calls from unnamed "pollsters" who conducted "push polls," a way in which the campaigns of political opponents plant negative and generally false stories about a candidate in the minds of "soft" or "undecided" voters. The clear intent was to turn people off my candidacy with falsehoods or half-truths.

Two weeks into the general election, a well-known Conservative Party consulting firm approached my campaign manager with an enticing offer. This operative offered my campaign manager a significant amount of money for a "six-week contract" for him and my top five campaign volunteers. The deal was for them to leave my campaign immediately and as a group and not return. That would have left my effort campaign paralyzed. And that, of course, was the intention. To Mark's credit, he turned down the request, but I found it absolutely incredible that they even tried.

No laws were broken. Yet what does it say about the judgment and ethics of the people that do this?

Politics is an industry. Besides those who work on parliament hill or the legislatures, the core is comprised of public relations, advertising, and government relation's consultants. You've got call centres, pollsters, lobbyists, and staffers. And then you have the ever-hopeful hanger-on celebrity seekers. The print and electronic media are also part of this community, as are firms and their principals that position themselves for financial gain such as law and accounting firms and industry associations. All of them have an incentive that is primarily driven by financial advantage, career positioning, or political power.

This is the "supply chain" of the political industry. It is an organism that feeds off itself. It is a culture where ideas don't matter. Tactics and winning power does. And the tactics are always designed to dumb down, deceive, to kill the opponent. The simpler the message, the better. That's because a vast majority of these people do not believe that a vast majority of us are very smart.

Last week in the National Post, Andrew Coyne wrote: "The Harper Conservatives did not invent dumb, dishonest, attack-dog politics -- though they may have perfected it."

That's absolutely true. They are better than anyone in Canada. Coyne pointed out that the problem with politics isn't the "system"; it's the people that inhabit it. "We're not going to change politics until we change the culture. And we're not going to change the culture. Only people in politics can do that."

When Christy Clark ridiculed Victoria as having a "sick culture" she was talking about a culture she has been in and thrived in all her adult life as a career political operator. She -- and others like her -- is not only at the heart of that culture but also has been instrumental in shaping it into the perversion that it has become.

"Normal people" have common sense and have never really learned how to park their judgment and critical thinking faculties at the door. But politics is different.

As Coyne wrote, "politics is a pathology."

Generally speaking, professional people of quality do not enter that sphere. It is far too tribal, too superficial, too demeaning. That says a lot about the state of affairs, really. The saddest testament of all to that reality is how excruciatingly difficult it is to attract competent, accomplished and qualified people to run for office. There's a reason for that. It has become beneath any self-respecting person to do so.

"There may be good people in politics. But the problem in politics isn't the bad guys. It's the good guys," says Coyne.

That's for sure. Yet we need thoughtful, experienced people to stand for public office. We need honest people whose sole motivation is service, the public good, and the national interest. The more that we accept the kind of people that populate that system, the more it perpetuates itself.

The cynical, complacent and malleable person in politics is a problem, as Coyne suggests. I believe the problem goes much deeper. The real culprit are those that put them all there and tolerate this in the first place.

And that, fellow citizens, would be us.