Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Cochrane | The Facebook fiasco and guilt by association

The Tories' attempt to humiliate the NDP not only backfired, but overshadowed warranted debate on the personal security of politicians, writes David Cochrane.

Speaker Ross Wiseman gave her three opportunities to apologize for something she did not do and for a comment she did not make. And each time Gerry Rogers refused.

This defiance of the Speaker led to the NDP MHA's ejection from the house of assembly, escorted out of the legislature by the Sergeant-at-Arms. It wasn’t the first time a politician has been kicked out of the house, but it has never been done under circumstances quite like this.

At issue was a vile comment an unidentified person posted on the wall of the Facebook group Kathy Dunderdale Must GO!!!

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The comment is unacceptable in any circumstances as it openly advocated for Dunderdale’s assassination. It has since been deleted and reported to the police. Gerry Rogers is not a suspect.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale is one of the most prominent citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador. She does a difficult job at tremendous personal sacrifice.

As premier, she is the target of severe criticism and — sadly — this is not the first time she has faced a death threat. This is why the premier is provided with a security detachment from the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

She warrants personal protection and should not have to suffer the indignity of threats of physical harm. Those threats are real and those threats are serious.

This is precisely why they should not be exploited for narrow partisan one-upmanship.

An attempt at humiliation

I’m pretty sure Gerry Rogers would like to remove the Dunderdale government from power. I’m equally certain she has no intentions of doing it through assassination.

New Democrat MHA Gerry Rogers was forced to leave the house of assembly early this week, because she refused to apologize for being a member of a Facebook group. (CBC)

Rogers says she was added to the Facebook group without her knowledge and by a person she doesn’t know. She says she has never seen the comment at the heart of this dispute. There is no evidence to suggest she is lying.

But that didn’t stop Government House Leader Darin King from pushing for Rogers’ public humiliation. King wanted Rogers suspended until the Speaker could finish a formal investigation. To the province’s justice minister, Rogers’ simple membership in a Facebook group containing thousands of people was proof enough of her wrongdoing.

King didn’t get everything he wanted, as the Speaker ruled there was no proof to find a breach of privilege. But Wiseman did rule that Rogers’ mere membership in the Facebook group was contempt of parliament and ordered the apology she refused to give. 

Memorial University political scientist Kelly Blidook says Wiseman’s ruling either shows partisan bias or a clear misunderstanding of how the internet works. Blidook — a non-partisan academic — says there was absolutely no merit to Rogers’ eviction from the house.

So much about this incident is troubling. But one thing that should worry politicians of every stripe is that guilt by association is apparently a sufficient standard to mete out harsh punishment.

A low bar indeed

That is a low bar that exposes practically everyone in public life to smears and accusations.  It is a standard MHAs should be acutely sensitive to less than a decade after all parties had members go to jail during the house of assembly spending scandal.

Government House Leader Darin King brought forward the complaint against Gerry Rogers. (CBC)

PC MHA Steve Kent just led Scouts Canada through a troubling sexual abuse scandal. Nalcor has signed rich Muskrat Falls contracts with SNC Lavalin, which is mired in a global bribery and corruption scandal. Nobody would suggest any wrongdoing by Kent or Nalcor because of these formal associations. But the Tories would have you believe that Rogers’ unwitting membership in a Facebook group amounted to an endorsement of a death threat.

Rogers has refused to leave the group since this controversy erupted. She says it is a free speech issue. The PCs say it shows terrible judgment to maintain an association after she was made aware of the threatening comments. It remains their only talking point on this issue. 

Meanwhile, the group’s membership has doubled in the days since Rogers’ eviction.  Does that mean more than 3,000 people endorse death threats against Kathy Dunderdale?

It is quite a leap of logic. Rogers’ expulsion from the house is the parliamentary equivalent of convicting someone for being too close to a crime scene, without actually committing a crime.

The personal security of our political leaders is an important issue. But right now everybody is talking about what you can or can’t do on Facebook and who politicians follow or don’t follow on Twitter.

Backfired campaign

The Tory attempt to inflict political damage on their biggest rival, the NDP, has backfired.  Instead of sparking a public conversation about the profane nature of certain online political commentary, this has sparked online mockery and ridicule of the government.

The Tories were right to condemn death threats against the premier. Kathy Dunderdale deserves far better treatment than that.

But the Tories were wrong to try and pin the blame for those comments on an innocent bystander who didn’t make them.

Gerry Rogers also deserves better treatment, and provincial politics deserves a more substantive debate.