Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday that flyers targeting new Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau shouldn't be confused with bullying and that the Conservative Party is following the rules on sending material to constituents.
The flyers contain the same messages featured in radio and television advertisements launched by the government immediately after Trudeau was chosen as his party's leader on April 14. They question the Quebec MP's judgment and work experience and use the tagline: "He's in way over his head."
The flyers are known as "10-percenters" and MPs can use their House of Commons budget to mail them, as long as they don't go to more than 10 per cent of homes in their riding. The Liberals said they obtained advance copies of the flyers and are complaining that the Conservatives are using taxpayers' money for negative campaigning.
Harper didn't mention the Trudeau flyers specifically but said his party is in line with all the others when it comes to the mailouts.
"There are House of Commons rules for communications that we do with constituents across the country. All parties work within those rules and all parties use those activities and use those rules," he said during a news conference with the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
On Tuesday, Harper met with the family of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old from Nova Scotia who died after she was taken off life-support following a suicide attempt. Her family says she was raped by four boys when she was 15 and then endured humiliation and harassment by classmates when a photo of the alleged attack was circulated.
The teen's suicide has drawn attention to bullying, and all parties in the House of Commons have been pledging this week to take more action to combat it. When Justice Minister Rob Nicholson met with his provincial and territorial counterparts in Ottawa on Wednesday, they agreed to speed up a review of the Criminal Code to see if any gaps can be filled. A report will be done by June.
The prime minister was asked during a news conference how he can reconcile his government's attack ads against Trudeau and the flyers with its anti-bullying message.
Mixed Tory support for ad campaign
He responded with his comments on the flyers, then added that what happened to the Parsons family is "completely unacceptable" and that he expects all parties to support new legislative measures whenever they are proposed.
"Do not confuse democratic debate in politics with crime. What happened to the Parsons family are terrible crimes and this government will be moving forward with measures to address them and I hope we'll find support among all parties in Parliament to support those measures," Harper said.
Some Conservative MPs aren't embracing the idea of the anti-Trudeau flyers for constituents. "I won't be participating in that program," Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber said.
"Generally speaking, my constituents are not all that thrilled by negative advertising," he said. Rathgeber said Conservative MPs aren't being pressured to send the flyers but they are available for their use if they want them.
"It's just not my style of politics. I like to focus on issues and not so much on character," he said.
Rathgeber backed Harper's statements that making a connection between the campaign aimed at discrediting Trudeau as a leader and bullying shouldn't be made.
"I suppose one could possibly make that link but that's a bit of a giant step, I would think," he said. "Public officials, I think, have to subject ourselves to a higher standard of criticism," said Rathgeber, adding again that his constituents don't respond well to negative advertising.
Another Conservative MP, Stephen Woodworth, said he wouldn't be using the flyers either. "I always, myself, try to focus on policy rather than personality, but I know there are other approaches and I can't tell other people what to do. But for me, it's a different way," he said.
Woodworth said he likes to see factual accuracy maintained whenever he sees political advertisements, regardless of whether they are on policy or people.
British Columbia MP John Duncan, however, said the flyers are standard procedure. He's not sure if they've been sent to his riding yet.
"I consider it business as normal," he said. "It's the way we behave, it's the way other parties have behaved as well."
Conservative MP Leon Benoit said of the advertisements that the party's supporters "really like them." He added that Harper has been the subject of negative advertisements in past election campaigns.
"What is in these ads is absolutely true, taken in context, so they're effective and I think they'll continue to be effective," he said. Benoit said he thinks young people in particular will respond to the message in the ads that Trudeau is not prepared to be prime minister.
"I do think that younger people are starting to understand that just because somebody might be good looking, might appeal in that way, doesn't mean they're really ready to be prime minister and I think that's important," he said.