How did they pull it off in Canada? While we in the United States slog through a presidential campaign highlighted by such things as a leading candidate faulting a POW for being captured, our respectable news organizations reduced to quoting absurdities that rightfully belong in the ignorable feed of a Twitter troll, and the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities feeling compelled to assert that one of the seven wonders of the ancient world was not, in fact, built to store grain, Canada recently held a national election blessedly free of such nonsense.
Is it that Canadians are just better than we are? Do they willfully eschew the freak shows that too often pass for political discourse in this country, and take priceless time away from more pressing issues such as increasing employment, stopping climate change, ending discrimination, and having a public transportation system that isn’t tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment? Is it an accident, or are they just lucky?
No on all counts. I love Canada, but it’s not because they are better than we are. Oh, wait a minute. Maybe they are. Because a big reason Canada is able to have real political discussions, ones that lead to electing candidates who represent the people they serve (a/k/a representative democracy), is that Canada did something America wasn’t smart enough to do. Before Fox News even existed, Canada passed the Canada Radio Act, a law which stipulates that “a licenser may not broadcast… any false or misleading news.”
Back in 2011, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper sought to modify the law so that Fox News could broadcast in Canada, and presumably help him stay in office. But Canadians rose up and put their collective feet down, citing concerns that a change in the law would “reduce their ability to determine what is true and what is false”, according to the Globe and Mail. They kept the “no” in “snow”, Fox News stayed south of the border, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t last much longer, did he?
The difference between some of the tragicomic campaigns for President of the United States right now and the recent campaign for Canadian Prime Minister is embarrassing. Justin Trudeau emerged victorious after a campaign in which he pledged to raise taxes on the wealthy and borrow if necessary to strengthen the infrastructure, and upon winning immediately announced his cabinet would have equal numbers of men and women. While we have one leading GOP contender calling the people of Iowa “stupid” for supporting the other leading GOP contender, the attack ad run by now former Prime Minister Stephen Harper used as its killer tag line, “Justin Trudeau: He’s Just Not Ready”. This is heard after a nice woman says, as nicely as anyone could, “I’m not saying no forever, but not now.” Imagine, if you will, an attack ad against Marco Rubio with a woman saying, “I’m not saying no forever, but not now.” Whose PAC would ever pay for that one? Emily Post’s?
Another key factor that keeps Canadian political campaigns substantive is Canada’s anti-defamation laws. In America we not only tolerate defamation of one candidate by another, we turn on televisions in record numbers to watch them do it live. We have even become accustomed to right wing journalists joining in the mud-slinging. But in Canada, journalists can’t get away with it. Last year, Ezra Levant, one-time host on the now-defunct right wing Sun News Network, was ordered to pay $80,000 plus legal costs for calling recent law school graduate Khurrrum Avan an “illiberal Islamic fascist” after Avan led a protest against the representation of Muslims in Maclean’s magazine. In her ruling, the judge wrote, “Mr. Levant ‘ought to have been aware of the serious ramification of his words on the reputation of this law student. Yet, at trial, he repeatedly tried to minimize his mistakes and his lack of diligence.’” Capraesque, isn’t it?
Except it isn’t. This is the way it works in Canada. They have political campaigns that at least from here seem to do a vastly better job than ours of electing candidates who represent the will of the people. We spend a lot of time talking about the problems of campaign finance law, and the need to overturn Citizens United. We live in the golden age of political fundraising where, according former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, U.S. Senators must dial for $10,000 a day. Why don’t we look for a solution that won’t cost a penny and won’t require a Constitutional amendment? Make it against the law for news organizations to lie, and make them pay up when they sling the mud. If it changes our political landscape for the better, blame Canada.