On the Hill – Bring in the Clowns

Our court jesters, from Rick Mercer to Jon Stewart and beyond, serve society well. They dare to expose the imperfections of the court, pointing out when the emperor’s pants have fallen down?or when he isn’t wearing any at all.

Admittedly, the joke sometimes backfires, as in the recent shambles of a mock interview by Geri Hall. (In character for This Hour Has 22 Minutes, the comedian tried to make light of Dalton McGuinty’s five-foot rule as he was taking reporters? questions about job layoffs.)

In the main, though, these Fools? antics hold a lot of truth. They point out the absurdity of all the hot air swirling around Ottawa or Washington, and can serve as an antidote to the self-importance that so often leads to abuses of power.

And if rumours about the approaching flood of political attack ads are true, we’re soon going to need our court jesters as much as ever.

Apparently, the honeymoon between Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and the federal Conservatives is over: the Tories are planning to unleash a barrage of attack ads against their rival.

As one Globe and Mail article reports, the Tories have been ?combing through a lifetime’s worth of musings from his career as a public intellectual? to gather ammunition. This includes the books Ignatieff wrote, the BBC programs he hosted, and every C-Span call-in show he took part in. The attack ads are expected to launch in the summer.

For the Liberals? part, they’re ?prepared to fight back,? and odds are good they’ve got their own team readying the cannons to sling mud in the direction of the Conservative camp. But unlike the sly truths of the court jester, this perpetual cycle of political attacks benefits no one?and comes at a very high cost.

Conservative or Liberal, those countless hours of research demand real money. (For the current crop of attack ads, the Conservatives admit they’ve had a team of researchers gathering material on Ignatieff for the past three years.) Then there’s the issue of producing the ads. There are production crews to pay, air time to buy, catering, transportation: all the expenses you’d expect in creating a regular commercial. It’s true that political parties exist on donations as well as public funding, but spending it on attack ads smacks a little too much of those highly paid CEOs and bankers that have spent years tossing money around for no one’s benefit but their own.

Then there’s the social cost. Attack ads are just what the name implies: streams of vitriol whose sole aim is to insult an opponent. They have nothing to do with truth or context or information. On the contrary, they distort, mislead, and confuse, for the sole purpose of consolidating a party’s hold on power?exactly the sort of thing that leads people to throw their hands up in futility and stay away from the polls.

Still, our politicians have developed a taste for relying on the ads and it appears that the next election won’t be any different. Cue the court jesters.