Last Sunday at the Vision AGM Mayor Gregor Robertson told the assembled crowd of the supporters their main opposition in the upcoming election, the NPA, was a party of “angry old white men.” He also, curiously enough, declared the campaign Vision would be running would be “relentlessly positive.” But let’s leave that contradiction aside for now.
It is a common practice in politics to define your opposition before they have a chance to define themselves. This frequently comes in the form of negative ad campaigns. Stephen Harper’s Tories have proved to be masters at this in bringing down Liberal leaders Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff before they even made it to the polls.
Closer to home Christy Clark’s Liberals delivered the final death blow to the NDP’s Adrian Dix following his flip-flop on the Kinder Morgan pipeline during the last provincial brawl with a TV ad that placed his head on a weather vane that was spinning erratically in every direction.
Of course this kind of attack — which most people don’t like but which is effective — can cross the line. Instead of poking at an opposition’s policies or skills shortcomings, they become entirely personal.
The best example of that took place in the 1993 federal election when Tory prime minister Kim Campbell was running against the Liberal’s Jean Chretien to keep her party in power.
A series four Tory attack ads included one that was a close up of Jean Chretien’s face, a face which is distorted, as you may know, by his childhood bout of Bell’s palsy. The copy with the ads included the phrases: “Is this a prime minister?” and “I would be very embarrassed if he became prime minister.”
Public outrage was such that the ad was pulled. Chretien actually turned the ad to his advantage — I speak out of one side of mouth but the Tories speak out of both sides — and the Tories, who were in trouble from the outset ended up being all but wiped out.
This brings me to Gregor Robertson and “angry old white men.” Let me declare that I am an old white man and occasionally I’m angry. There is nothing in that phrase and the derisive way it was intended to suggest anything to do with policy. Anger, as we have seen in public outbursts around the globe is often prompted by social injustice, or powerlessness in the face of tyranny. I can’t say I have a problem with that.
As for the “old white men” whom Robertson seeks to ridicule, now that we are swaddled in a cloak of political correctness they are probably the last group on Earth who are still considered fair game.
But in fact he is attacking people because of their age, their race and their gender. Does that make him ageist, racist and sexist?
The comment didn’t anger me as much as it was disappointing. Here is the guy who will most likely still be our mayor after the next election. Yet, when he’s dealing with criticism, he, too, often chooses to label people rather than to listen to them.
In one of his most publicized off-leash moments, following a public hearing over some development issues that West Enders found particularly egregious, he unwittingly found himself in front of a still open mike while he asked his council colleagues: “Who are these f--king people. Who are these NPA hacks?” It turns out his critics were members of COPE and Vision, the very coalition that voted to allow him to take power.
The “angry old white men” comment, however, was far more deliberate. As I observed on Sunday, Robertson was speaking from notes. This was part of a strategy to appeal to the folks in the room. It was intentional, worked out by the brains trust that surrounds our mayor.
If this is what he meant when he on Sunday also said he’s “not going to be backing away from taking it to the NPA” we will all be poorer for it.
This kind of racist, sexist and ageist assault should make no one proud and is hardly what anyone would consider “relentlessly positive.”