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The politics of a case of harassment in the House of Commons

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It might have been hoping for too much to expect a tale of sexual harassment in Parliament, which directly involved Members of Parliament from different parties, not to become political.

On the first day or two after Liberal leader Justin Trudeau suspended two of his MPs for alleged acts of harassment against two NDP members, all sides scrupulously avoided partisanship.

CBC panelists even remarked on that notable fact.

Then the tone of dialogue between the Liberals and the New Democrats changed markedly.

New Democrats complained that their two MPs (one of whom had, we are told, directly complained to Trudeau) never wanted their cases to become public knowledge.

They accused the Liberal leader of "re-victimizing" their two MPs when he held a news conference to announce the suspensions without warning the NDP MPs (or anyone else in the Official Opposition).

There was also an undertone of concern on the part of at least some NDPers that, in a strange way, the Liberals were gaining political mileage from what should have been, to say the least, a discomfiting series of events.

In acting decisively and unequivocally, and clearly taking the side of the presumed victims, Trudeau was turning a political sow's ear into a public opinion silk purse.

More important, the situation gave the Liberal leader -- whom many New Democrats resentfully see as the beneficiary of an excess of undeserved, favourable media coverage -- another long moment in the national limelight.

'Disgusting way that the NDP set up Trudeau'...?

Liberals and their friends, for their part, pointed out that this was a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't situation for Trudeau. Having received a complaint, the Liberal leader was obliged to act and act quickly. If he did not, he left himself open to the accusation of failing to do enough.

Some supporters of Trudeau went even further, accusing the NDP of playing partisan games with this case in order to embarrass and undermine the Liberals and their leader.

rabble.ca reader in Nova Scotia asked this reporter:

"Can you write something about the disgusting way that the NDP set up Trudeau with the MP harassment issue? Talk about damned if you don't. Elizabeth May is calling this out for what it is. Mulcair's posturing on this is despicable." 

Readers, you can decide on the merits of that reader's accusation for yourselves. It seems to this writer that to say the NDP somehow manipulated this situation to entrap the young Liberal leader is going more than a bit too far.

Whatever the merits of that accusation, however, this political observer's hunch is that the vast majority of voters who do not focus on the day-to-day machinations of Parliament will, in fact, have been left with a generally favourable impression of the Liberal leader.

Overall, to Canadians who have not been paying close attention (i.e. most Canadians), Trudeau's demeanour and actions have likely looked strong and compassionate at the same time. And that is just the sort of image a leader would hope to project when confronted with this sort of at once delicate and explosive matter.

Canadians' views and impressions of this affair may depend, however, on their gender, their age and whether they accept the fact that sexual harassment is a genuine problem in Canadian workplaces. As with climate change, there are still some sexual harassment deniers out there.

Why not a confidential mediation process?

As well, there are those who sincerely worry about the due process issues raised by this case.

They worry that two elected politicians have been formally ostracized without, it seems, even knowing the exact nature of the charges against them.

Indeed, some -- young and old, female and male -- are concerned that Trudeau's quick, and maybe too hasty, action might destroy the careers and reputations of his two suspended MPs, without their ever having had a fair hearing.

That school of thought would have it that the Liberal leader would have been better advised to find some sort of confidential mediation process to settle this matter out of public view. They say such a course would have been much better than the huge public brouhaha Trudeau created.

It is a complicated and multi-faceted controversy, and there is probably at least some merit to everybody's accusations of everybody else.

One can understand the NDPers' displeasure at the fact that the Liberals appeared to use this case to grandstand -- and that the leader of the third party betrayed the two complaining MPs' expressed request of confidentiality.

Liberals are equally justified, perhaps, in wincing at NDPers' stance of high dudgeon and moral outrage. The NDP's rhetoric about re-victimization, Liberals could argue, probably outpaces the facts.

Who gave the names of the complaining NDP MPs to at least one reporter?

Where the Liberals might have more difficulty defending themselves, if it ever were to come to that, is in their putative dealings on this issue with journalists.

NDP Whip Nycole Turmel is convinced that it was someone in the Liberal Party who told folks in the media that the two MPs who complained of harassment were female and NDPers.

The NDP Whip admits she has no proof. But she told CBC Radio very few folks in her party knew about all this, and none would have even considered blabbing about it to journalists.

If that unproven allegation is in fact true, there could be a bit more to it than what Turmel alleges.

On the day Trudeau suspended two Liberal MPs a reporter for a U.S.-based media outlet told CBC News Network that she, in fact, knew the names of the complaining NDP MPs. She would not reveal those names out of respect for the MPs' desire to maintain their privacy.

And so, if one or more Liberal operatives not only told journalists, generally, that the complainants were NDP MPs, but also  gave the names of the two NDPers to at least one journalist -- well that would be a serious lapse in good judgment, if not ethics.

The Liberal leader, who is cultivating a reputation as a man who can take tough and decisive action, might want to act decisively here.

He might consider having a frank talk with some members of his inner circle about ethical and respectful behaviour, especially with regard to sharing sensitive information where there is an urgent need to respect confidentiality.


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