Editorial: Negativity hurts election process

Come out fighting and keep it clean — good advice for a boxing match, better advice for an election campaign. After being the target of attack ads from B.C. Liberal supporters, New Democrat leader Adrian Dix says his party will take the high road during the campaign leading up to the May 14 provincial election.

“While the Liberal party relies on personal attacks, I plan to act on issues important to you and your family,” says Dix in an NDP commercial.

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It could be argued that he has already dipped his toe into the muddy waters of negative campaigning in attacking the other side for running a negative campaign.

But Dix’s comment is an understandable reaction to the RiskyDix campaign launched by the B.C. Liberals in 2011. Let’s hope he can stick to the high road, and that others involved in the election can resist the temptation to fling mud over the next eight weeks.

Negative advertising is the crack cocaine of political campaigning. It’s a cheap way to get a quick buzz, but it leaves an awful hangover — voters experience headaches, nausea and a bad taste that lingers long after the election is finished. Unfortunately, it seems to be addictive for some.

Apart from the morality of attack ads and other less-savoury campaign strategies, there’s no clear indication that they work.

Research on the effectiveness of negative political advertising is all over the map. Those studying the issue found no strong correlations, only indications, and those indications go both ways.

“The research literature does not bear out the idea that negative campaigning is an effective means of winning votes, even though it tends to be more memorable and stimulate knowledge about the campaign,” says an article in the Journal of Politics in the U.S.

Other studies show that while negative campaigning rarely convinces people to change sides, it discourages them from voting, a factor that some strategists exploit. If we can’t persuade them to vote for us, they reason, at least we can make them so disgusted they will stay home and not vote for the other side.

The long-term result is the erosion of public confidence in the political process and government in general.

Negative campaigning is risky business. A party busy tearing down the other side puts itself in danger of being accused of having no platform of its own. And it’s a valid observation: If you have something worthwhile to offer, why are you talking about your opponent?

It’s a process that taints the shooter more than the target. To mix metaphors, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t fling mud. Voters will be asking what you are hiding.

This is not to imply that a campaign should be all sunshine and good cheer. Government is serious business; B.C. faces serious challenges. Strong ideas are needed, and some of those ideas will conflict.

Dix says he’s taking the high road, and good for him, but so far, he has taken no road at all. It’s time to hear what his party will do if and when it assumes the reins of government. Then let the debates start, but in an atmosphere of civility and respect.

Political hobbyists might enjoy the give and take of nasty campaigns, taking delight in keeping score, but the score generally doesn’t favour the public.

To the politicos, it might be a game, but to the rest of us, it’s about good government and making the province a better place.

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