On Father’s Day weekend, Canadians watched two of their nation’s highest-profile dads argue bitterly about which one of them hated child pornography more.

It all started during the English-language leaders debate. In the midst of an exchange about using the notwithstanding clause to override Supreme Court decisions, Conservative leader Stephen Harper abruptly raised the issue of child pornography. Up to that point, the other candidates had focused the discussion on abortion and homosexual “marriage.” By bringing up child pornography, Harper deftly managed to equate two liberal sacred cows with something revolting and indefensible.

His apparent non sequitur was soon revealed to be part of Conservative Party strategy. On June 18, the Conservatives issued, then recalled, then reissued, a press release originally titled “Paul Martin Supports Child Pornography?”

Martin reacted with outrage:

“I don’t think that any parent or any Canadian would buy that kind of an implication, and I don’t think they would buy that implication in terms of me.” Harper acknowledged that the original title was “a bit strong,” but defended the substance of the release as “clearly true.” If the prime minister really advocated “zero tolerance,” why had he called the election just before the Senate could pass Bill C-20? (Among other things, that bill would increase the penalty for sexual offences against minors.)

The press release was condemned by many as a cynical gambit, coming so close after Michael Briere’s admission that he’d viewed child pornography right before he murdered 10-year-old Holly Jones. Some conservative commentators feared the controversy might cost Harper the election.

Polls released the following week seemed to reveal a drop in support for Harper, although those results were still close, and well within the statistical margin of error.

Paul Martin continued to milk the controversy, commenting at one point:

“I suppose (this kind of thing is) one of the reasons why there is the cynicism out there … I don’t think the public wants to see these kinds of comments,” he said. “There is a higher standard to which we should all aspire.”

Interestingly, a press release issued by the Liberals around the same time also featured a brash headline phrased as a personal attack – “Ralph Klein: Public Health Risk” – in effect, comparing the Conservative premier of Alberta to a contagious disease. It received relatively little attention from the media.

– Kathy Shaidle