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Tory attack ads go too far this time

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The latest instalment in the Conservatives' non-stop personal assault on Michael Ignatieff reveals far more about the Conservatives than the Liberal leader.

The ad, posted on a Conservative website, attacks a recent Liberal party video featuring Ignatieff claiming his father's Russian family lived the "usual immigrant experience."

The Conservative rebuttal says Ignatieff's grandparents were anything but typical immigrants, having lived at the pinnacle of Russian society before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. "While the Ignatieffs have made the most of their coming to Canada... they have never ceased to enjoy great privilege as a function of the financial and educational resources and social status they brought with them," the ad states. "The Ignatieff immigrant experience is one of significant wealth, first-rate educations and privilege. Very few Canadians can claim this 'immigrant experience."

Ignatieff may have stretched the truth when he stated "my dad was a Russian immigrant. Came off a boat in 1928 without anything." But it's true his father was "a political refugee" and his grandparents lived a modest life in rural Quebec.

Of all the Conservative ceaseless barrage of attack ads, this one finally crossed the line for the Liberal leader. Appearing on CTV's Question Period Sunday, he let loose with his angriest denunciation of the Harperites to date.

"Their attack on me is a disgrace," Ignatieff told interviewer Jane Taber of The Globe and Mail. "They've attacked my patriotism. They've attacked my commitment to the country. And now they're attacking my family...

"These personal attacks are unprecedented in the history of Canadian democracy," he continued. [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper is absolutely out of control. He thinks he can get away with and say anything. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian. I am a proud Canadian. I won't take that from him or from anybody else. Canadians have got to ask themselves, is this the kind of politics you want? This is a prime minister who is prepared to say anything to hold on to power."

As well as being in a class by itself, this ad casts an entirely new light on the bulging portfolio of Ignatieff attacks the Conservatives have bombarded Canadians with for the past two years. It will cause Canadians to wonder what kind of people the Conservatives really are and what drives them down to this level.

Do the now-familiar Conservative phrases "just in it for himself," "didn't come back for you," "sole focus on himself," "lust," and "desperate," describe Ignatieff? Or do they more accurately profile the Conservatives?

Do they resent him simply because he is well-educated, has an aristocratic pedigree, an international reputation as a scholar and an intellectual and is the author of numerous award-winning books? Do they fear Canadians may see him as "better" than they? Do they seek not just defeat but to humiliate and destroy him because he threatens them?

In a recent column, The Ottawa Citizen's Dan Gardner wrote that no previous generation of Canadian Conservatives has behaved like the Harper Conservatives. "For the prime minister and his core team, there is no such thing as honest and honourable disagreement. One either supports Stephen Harper or one is the enemy -- and enemies must be defeated by any means necessary."

Gardner noted the original "Enemies List" was compiled by former U.S. president Richard Nixon, "a lifelong politician whose defining qualities were tactical ruthlessness and a burning sense of resentment for 'eastern elites.' Sound familiar?"

The Harper Conservatives are closely connected to and influenced by the American conservative movement, Gardner continued. These conservatives consider themselves outsiders, underdogs, forced to fight dirty. "Even in the middle of the Bush years, when Republicans controlled the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, conservatives sincerely saw themselves as hard-pressed and persecuted insurgents."

University of Calgary professor of linguistics and psychology Julie Sedivy says Canadians have become desensititized to negative campaign ads. At first, Canadians were viscerally angered by them. Now, they have been lulled into greater acceptance of them and their messages. Sedivy compares negative political attack ads to violence on TV. People have just gotten used to it.

For people to tune out TV violence is one thing. For voters to cease voting out of revulsion at the politics of personal destruction destroys democracy.


Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2011 A13

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