OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t seem to see any contradiction Thursday between his government’s fondness for partisan political attacks while at the same time pledging to fight the scourge of online bullying.
Indeed, Harper seemed to bristle at the suggestion of parallels between the political discourse on Parliament Hill and the ever-present perils faced by teenagers online.
“Do not confuse democratic debate in politics with crime,” Harper said during a news conference in Ottawa.
The Conservatives have been on an relentless advertising offensive of late against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, painting him as a pretty face and famous name who lacks the judgment and gravitas to be prime minister.
That campaign happened to overlap this week with the eighth annual Victims of Crime Week in Ottawa, during which the Conservatives promised to fast-track new laws to help protect young people from cyberbullying.
Some critics and editorial writers, however, have suggested the political tone in Ottawa offers an unsavoury echo of the very online behaviour the government is looking to prevent.
The juxtaposition between the two campaigns is jarring, said an editorial this week in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, a sentiment echoed in letters to the editor from Canadians across the country.
“When teenagers assess role models, they have an unfailing ability to call out adults for telling them not to do something those same adults do,” the newspaper wrote.
“Why should teens believe a political leader who says it’s wrong to gang up on someone and attack him publicly, when that leader and the backroom strategists are rubbing their hands in glee over the next round of attack ads?”
Harper, judging from his reaction Thursday, does not agree. He took particular umbrage at the mention of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old Nova Scotia girl who took her own life earlier this month.
Her family alleges Parsons was sexually assaulted by four boys in 2011 and that a digital photograph of the incident was shared around her school.
“What happened with the Parsons family are terrible crimes and this government will be moving forward with measures to address them,” said Harper, who met with the family Wednesday to discuss changes to the Criminal Code that would make it illegal to share intimate images without a person’s consent.
Julie Vaux, Harper’s spokeswoman, went even further.
“This is no time to trivialize what happened in Nova Scotia,” Vaux said in an email. “Using this tragic example and comparing it in such a way is a slap in the face to the family.”
But NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair suggested it’s an issue worth considering.
“It is somewhat ironic that at a time when we’re talking about whether or not this type of highly partisan personal attack is generally a good idea, I think we better start practising what we preach up here.”
The Conservatives have been relentless in targeting Trudeau, who was campaigning Thursday in Labrador in advance of a byelection next month.
“Instead of defending an increasingly indefensible, mediocre record on the economy and on various decisions, they attack,” he said in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“And they use whatever public resources they can to turn people away from politics and to foster cynicism.”
Harper has sought in the last week to directly contrast some of his own views with those of Trudeau, specifically on the issue of terrorism.
When Trudeau suggested it would be important to consider the “root causes” of last week’s attacks at the Boston Marathon, Harper lashed out, insisting it was a time for manhunts, not soul searching.
On Thursday, four days after police arrested two men accused of plotting to attack a Via Rail train with the help of al-Qaida, Harper was asked when it would be the right time to consider the root causes of terrorism.
“This is not a time to commit sociology, if I can use an expression. It’s time to treat this,” he said.
“These things are serious threats, global terrorist attacks, people who have agendas of violence that are deep and abiding threats to all the values that our society stands for.”
Former Liberal leader Bob Rae said exploring motivations is important.
“There’s never an excuse, there’s never a justification, there’s never a rationalization (of terrorism),” he said.
“What we’re talking about is dealing with causes so we can stop the causes, so we can be tough on terrorism … and also tough on the causes of terrorism.”