Ontario's dumbest political scandal got an update this week, roughly six weeks after it should have been quickly addressed and put to bed.
On Sept. 13, Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown misspoke: he said Premier Kathleen Wynne would be standing trial in a bribery case in Sudbury, Ont. ("when she stands trial," he said), when she was, in fact, testifying as a witness in a case involving two top Liberal staffers. (A judge dismissed the charges Tuesday for lack of evidence.)
Team Wynne, surely desperate for any piece of information that could deflect from what was then two ongoing corruption cases, latched onto the comment and threatened to sue the opposition leader for defamation unless he retracted his statement.
Managing a slip-up
Now, this premier has a penchant for suing her political opponents for libel, recognizing that the charge can be used to reposition herself on the offence. It is quite nakedly a manoeuvre to change the channel on Liberal scandals. But in this case — putting aside the hilarity of a premier with a 17 per cent approval rating alleging damage to her reputation — Wynne and her lawyers are in the right: what Brown said was objectively incorrect.
A smart war room should be able to handle the odd slip-up, and Brown's was hardly fatal. He had any number of good options to both address his mistake and keep the focus on the Sudbury trial: I apologize, I misspoke: the premier is not on trial. It's just that there are so many Liberal corruption cases going on, it's difficult to keep track of who's doing what.
Easy. The Ontario PCs, however, are capable of stabbing themselves with a foam finger. So they doubled down — surely to the Liberals' delight — and thus were promptly served with an official notice of libel.
- Ontario PC leader slams Premier Kathleen Wynne's libel threat, calls it 'baseless'
- Premier Kathleen Wynne serves PC leader with libel notice
This week, Brown posted his lawyer's response, which included all sorts of defences including notions of "privilege" and "fair comment," while lamenting the premier's use of Ontario's "scarce judicial resources." However, the most obvious defence to a libel charge — truth — was conspicuously absent. That's because in this case it simply doesn't apply.
Wrongness is forgivable, but clumsily turning a slip of the tongue into a pointless parade of obstinacy is far less so. It is U.S. President Donald Trump doubling down on insensitive comments made to a war widow over the phone, deaf to well-meaning allies bellowing at him to just apologize and move on.
Battle over nothing
This six-week battle over nothing — truly, the egregious waste of everyone's time is probably the most offensive aspect of this whole thing — is why many nihilistic Ontarians believe the Wynne government will run the province forever: against all odds and notions of fairness and logic and reason. Next year's Ontario election is the Tories' to lose, just as it was the last time, and the time before that. Without a doubt, they could do it again, and this sort of sloppy crisis management shows just that.
Brown's defenders insist that Wynne is taking the media for a ride with this libel distraction, successfully diverting attention from her numerous scandals. That is true, to an extent. But the fact is, when the premier sues the opposition leader for libel, that is news. It is far more nefarious for the media to choose to ignore the story in some sort of vain attempt to manipulate readers' focus than it is to report on it and let people decide what they make of it.
What's more, politicians have their own communications and crisis management teams; journalists are not responsible for making sure partisan messages reach desired audiences. If the message isn't getting out, then the people paid to circulate it aren't doing their jobs very well.
That said, I'm still not quite sure what message Brown's people are trying to convey with his meaningless defence of his own wrongness: "Our guy is so determined to fight for you, he won't back down even in the face of facts"? "Vote for us, we'll fight all the battles you don't care about"? "Never admit mistakes; elect Patrick Brown"?
Many Ontarians are, for the third straight election, just begging for a viable alternative to the provincial Liberals. Yet here we have Brown, parading an unyielding fidelity to his own inaccuracy, chipping away at that notion of viability. The Ontario Liberals are expert campaigners and can — and already have started to — devour this type of amateurish opposition. The PCs have seven months to get it together.