Opinion

Please Advise! Is This an Election, or a 'Law & Order' Episode?

As Dr. Steve says: If elected office you're pursuin,' you had best commence the suin'.

By Steve Burgess 13 Nov 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Read his previous articles here.

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BC's municipal elections are seeing enough legal action to keep Jack McCoy busy.

[Editor's note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a Ph.D in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

This Saturday is Election Day across the Lower Mainland. I'm pumped. Any last minute advice before I vote?

Signed,

Ready

Dear Ready,

But are you ready, Ready? Really, Ready? Make a list of the things you will need before voting: A) Your voter identification card; B) The location of your nearest polling station; C) A law degree. These days the court of public opinion seems to require professional legal advice.

Vision Vancouver's Gregor Robertson and Geoff Meggs have launched a defamation lawsuit against Non-Partisan Association mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe, claiming NPA campaign ads and statements have falsely accused them of corruption. But that wasn't the first episode of Law & Order in this campaign.

The Cedar Party's Glen Chernen filed suit alleging Mayor Robertson was misrepresenting himself by claiming his wife's home as his residence (the judge's reply to that one was a polite version of "Get a life"). Chernen has launched a total of three actions against Robertson this year, one of which involved Vision's alleged connection to the Vancouver is Awesome website and the other revolving around a lease signed by the web company Hootsuite. The latter case earned the distinction of being dismissed by the B.C. Supreme Court as an abuse of process.

In Mission, Mayor Ted Adlem has filed suit alleging political blackmail by unnamed defendants.

Meanwhile in Victoria, mayoral candidate Stephen Andrews recently filed a complaint with the chief electoral officer and the privacy commissioner. Amateur. He needs to kick it up a level. Dr. Steve says: If elected office you're pursuin,' you had best commence the suin'.

Courting the voter

Courting the voters has taken on a whole new meaning. Perhaps someday our mayoral debates will be held in front of Judge Judy. Every candidate statement will be followed by a deep, sonorous "bong bong" (or "chung chung," depending on your sonic interpretation). Candidates will be forced to say, "I refuse to campaign on the grounds that it may incriminate me."

Political lawsuits tend to provoke eye-rolling and reminders that politics ain't beanbag. Yet campaigns shouldn't be a license to defame -- you need to have the goods to back your charges. There should be video of the alleged intercourse between candidate and quadruped, or if the allegation involves the purchase of said candidate's soul, a credit card receipt at least. Otherwise, see you in court. (Tip: Get a nice-looking suit jacket. When leaving the courthouse, do not put it over your head. And don't wear orange.)

Skilled campaigners avoid legal issues entirely, usually by exiting the realm of logic and sanity so completely that no legal action is possible. As usual, our southern neighbours are setting the pace. During the recent midterm elections, thousands of Republican TV ads made reference to Ebola. Because Ebola is real -- it's killing people. And someone is responsible.

Nor does every political attack need to provoke legal action. One of the most famous slanders in political history, alleged to have been directed at Florida Senate candidate Claude Pepper by opponent George Smathers, would have held up in any court of law.

In 1950, Time magazine reported that Smathers had given this rousing speech to some backwoods Florida voters: "Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy."

Alas, it is now believed that this Florida campaign story is apocryphal, likely invented by bored journalists. Smathers always denied it and no solid evidence of the quote ever turned up. But it's a great strategy regardless. Why not accuse your opponent of supporting women's suffrage? Just watch them try to deny it.

One lawsuit with impact

The real question for politicians is whether lawsuits, justifiable or otherwise, are a good idea. They certainly get you attention. So does taking hostages at the grocery store, but it's hardly a canny political move. The Cedar Party has expressed legitimate concerns about developers lobbying City Hall and has proposed a more transparent system of registration -- an interesting issue that has diddly-squat to do with whether Robertson claims to live in Kits or the West End. Maybe next they'll be asking to see the mayor's birth certificate. Petty and alarmist are not character traits you want to emphasize for voters.

As for the suit launched by Robertson and Meggs (and the case being brought by Mission's Mayor Adlem) those are different. Being accused of corruption or other serious improprieties is no harmless squirt-gun fight. Candidates must decide whether they ought to shrug it off as political rough-and-tumble or take measures to avoid permanent damage to their reputations. It's a bit like a hockey fight that leads to serious injury. Some infractions call for more discipline than the referee can offer.

What might really transform the legal and political landscape is the Kinder Morgan lawsuit. Recently in B.C. Supreme Court, Kinder Morgan lawyer Bill Kaplan alleged that protesters who have made angry faces at Kinder Morgan workers were thereby committing assault.

If this claim is validated by the court, it's not just protest that will change. Politics too. No longer will the essential quality for a successful politician be wisdom, sound judgement, or innovative ideas. It will be Botox. It's one thing to say, "My opponent is a corrupt, fraudulent, Ebola-spreading, camel-humping, baby-kissing swindler." Try saying it with a straight face.  [Tyee]

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