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New Year's resolution: Time for Alberta's conservative leaders to speak out against violent and misogynistic political speech

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Jason Kenney

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There's still three days for the leaders of the political right in Alberta to make a serious New Year's resolution to do something about the threatening, hateful and misogynistic tone adopted by some of their supporters.

I'm talking about people with real stature on the right. People who, when they speak, command attention. Alberta conservative leaders like former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, former prime minister Stephen Harper, federal Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose and Calgary Midnapore Member of Parliament Jason Kenney, who lately has been touted on social media as a provincial Conservative leadership candidate capable of uniting Conservatives and Wildrosers in Alberta.

The situation they need to help deal with is the death threats and ugly misogyny directed in particular at Alberta Premier Rachel Notley during the meltdown that followed the introduction of Bill 6, legislation that brings Alberta into line with all the other provinces in Canada on minimal farm safety rules.

The worst of these attacks and violent imagery seems to have died down for the holiday season, although it continued even on Christmas Day for some of Notley’s least articulate opponents on the right.

So, as commentator Sydney Sharpe argued in a column published on Boxing Day by the Calgary Herald: "It's time to stand up, especially since the bullying is aimed most directly at a female premier."

Sharpe's commentary is worth quoting at some length: "In Alberta, the movement toward political equality seems to have increased the amount of abuse and bullying women receive in the political house," she wrote. "A woman as premier is no longer unique, but the rise in verbal and cyber-abuse is. Social media have taken it into the public marketplace.

"While public institutions such as universities and colleges have tackled cyber-bullying, legislative bodies have fallen behind," she went on. "… It's time for the elected representatives, and every person of good will, to call a halt."

There have been plenty of politicians and partisans in the centre and on the left speaking up about this, but with a few honourable exceptions the right has been pretty quiet. Of course the elephant in their room is that on the Bill 6 issue at least -- and I would argue on almost every other issue -- the most violent and sexist of this garbage has come from their side, and they know it.

Give Wildrose Leader Brian Jean credit for saying something about this -- albeit in a Facebook post, not a news release or an official statement. But at least Jean acknowledged where this garbage was coming from and said it had to stop.

But where is Kenney, for example, who is an active social media user and certainly knows the kinds of things that have been said?

Sharpe made another point worth thinking about, and that is that the quality of debate in the Legislature can have an impact on the nature of debate in society.

"Every time there's a new legislature, politicians of every party start by promising a new tone of co-operation and friendship. This quickly becomes their first broken promise. The dreadful example they set for themselves then encourages and enables the haters."

There's enough truth to this to make it dangerous -- especially when political parties make statements of fact they know to be false in their political statements, both in the House and outside.

But we need to be cautious about condemning strong statements for and against policy, both in the House and in the streets. As Justice William J. Brennan of the United States Supreme Court wisely wrote in a famous defamation law decision in 1964, "debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials."

This is not about defanging debate, or demanding that citizens or legislators not forcefully argue their positions. Nor is it about banning offensive speech.

Moreover, this isn’t about stupid speech. Comparing a law requiring agricultural employers to observe occupational health and safety rules and register their employees for Workers Compensation to genocide is merely idiotic. But we're all in agreement you have a Constitutional right to be an idiot if you wish to be.

But calling for someone to kill a politician or her supporters, with a pitchfork or a gun, resorting to the crudest obscenity in a way that seems intended to bully women, or even just to express the hope someone you disagree with chokes on their turkey dinner is not uninhibited, robust, and wide-open debate. In the case of death threats, it's a Criminal Code offence. The rest of it, at the very least, deserves a stout response in the form of social condemnation.

So whether it's Bill 6 or some other issue that prompts it, it's time for Canadians and Albertans to start showing the courage to speak up about this, forcefully and with conviction.

It's not good enough for us men to leave job this to women. This is not a "women's issue." We all own it.

And it's certainly not good enough for conservative leaders to leave it to the left. Even if this activity were indulged in equally by supporters of all political parties -- and it is not -- conservative leaders would still have a responsibility to speak up and make their condemnation clear.

"Everybody does it" is not an appropriate response. Your mother taught you that.

Yet so far we're not hearing very much from most leaders of Alberta’s conservatives. Maybe they’ve said something behind closed doors to their own supporters. But, if so, with the exception of Jean’s Facebook post, not much has reached the public.

Well, it's three days to New Year's Day. That would be an excellent occasion for the likes of Manning, Harper, Ambrose and Kenney to raise their voices against this kind of poisonous abuse.  

Anybody there?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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