Jack Knox: Boom! In elections, we’re never safe from nasty shocks

“Is it safe?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Come out from under the bed.”

“No.”

“No photos of Elizabeth May clubbing a seal?”

“No.”

“Jagmeet Singh in the Nazi costume that Prince Harry wore to a party in 2005?”

“No.”

“Old video of Andrew Scheer firing up a pipe with one of the Ford brothers?”

“No.”

“Grainy webcam footage of Trudeau shopping for tiki torches at the Charlottesville Walgreens?”

“Not yet, but the day is young.”

This is the problem with modern elections: you’re always on eggshells, waiting for someone to step on the next political landmine.

That is, at this time last week we were ambling sleepily into a campaign in which the big issues were climate change and affordable housing and health care and then suddenly — boom! — we’re in an out-of-the-blue hullabaloo where nobody’s talking about anything except whether Prime Minister Al Jolson is an unwoke, unforgivable racist or Sunny Ways Justin, the one who brought tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada.

Not — I repeat NOT — that I am making light of the Trudeau photos. Seriously, no.

What I am saying is that we are no longer surprised when a campaign is punctuated by a series of moments in which politicians are blindsided by their own imperfect pasts.

The guy who gave the 18-year-old Trudeau yearbook photo to Time magazine says he felt compelled to make the picture public after stumbling across it in July. More commonly, though, the uproars result from some social-media miner emerging from the mud of a toxic-treasure-hunting expedition, triumphantly waving his find like Indiana Jones after delving into a politician’s old Myspace account, or whatever.

You wouldn’t think it would be that easy. In an age when a kid can’t get hired as an after-school gas jockey without the human resources department rummaging through his or her Instagram with the grim-lipped intensity of the KGB trying to root out a mole, one would assume the candidate-vetting process wouldn’t leave much dirt to be discovered. Yet it happens with regularity.

The 2015 federal election campaign saw at least 18 candidates taken down by old social media posts (and that doesn’t even count the Conservative who got bounced after old footage emerged of him peeing in somebody else’s coffee cup).

Among the fallen were:

• A Toronto Conservative who was found to have appeared in YouTube prank videos in which he A) made fun of people with mental disabilities and B) faked an orgasm during a call to a female customer-service agent.

• A Calgary Liberal who as a teen tweeted “your mother should have used that coat hanger” to one critic and “go blow your brains out you waste of sperm” to another.

• An Ontario New Democrat whose seven-year-old Facebook post compared concentration camp power poles to penises. She didn’t step down, but did apologize, saying: “I didn’t know what Auschwitz was.”

• Two southern Vancouver Island Liberals. First, the party’s Cowichan-Malahat-Langford candidate was tripped up by a 2013 Facebook post about the 9/11 “lie.” Then Victoria’s Cheryl Thomas resigned after somebody dug up a post in which she referred to certain mosques as “brainwashing stations” and another in which she criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The big problem for the Liberals was that Thomas withdrew too late in the campaign to be replaced on the ballot in what some thought was a close race. Even after dropping out of the race, she ended up with 12 per cent of the vote.

That echoed what happened to the New Democrats in 2008 when, too late for his name to be erased, their candidate in Saanich-Gulf Islands withdrew following allegations that he had stripped naked in front of a group of teenage girls at a 1996 environmental retreat. He still earned six per cent of the vote.

After the 2015 election, Thomas lamented that she had fallen on her sword too readily. She was right. She shouldn’t have had to resign. Her posts could have been defended had she been given the chance to explain them in context — not that there’s time for that during a campaign, not in the age of outrage culture. Thomas was taken out by the political equivalent of a roadside bomb, detonated when it would do the most damage.

Are we safe from more surprises? Not until a month from now, the day after the election.

Maybe we can use that time to ponder climate change, housing affordability and health care.

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