Trudeau isn't the first PM to threaten critics with a lawsuit

So entrenched in Western political culture are slander, character assassination and flat-out lies that it's startling whenever politicians raise serious legal complaints about something someone's said about them. At the very least, it seems unsporting.

Lawsuits won't solve the problem of politicians skirting the truth

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (left) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Sure, politicians have the right to sue their critics. That doesn't mean they should. (Canadian Press)

So entrenched in Western political culture are slander, character assassination, half-truths and flat-out lies that it's startling whenever a politician raises serious legal complaints about something someone's said about them. At any rate, it seems unsporting.

"That's North Korea level bs," Conservative MP Michelle Rempel declared on Sunday when it emerged that Justin Trudeau's lawyer had sent a sternly worded letter to Andrew Scheer about a series of comments the Conservative leader recently made about Trudeau's involvement in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

The voices of dissent in North Korea might wish for a world where a lawsuit is the worst consequence of questioning authority. But in a political system like Canada's, built on conflict between competing views, suing the leader of the Official Opposition is at least an awkward thing for a prime minister to do.

Thing is, Trudeau wouldn't be the first PM to do so. Ten years ago, Stephen Harper threatened legal action against then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and then launched proceedings against the Liberal Party of Canada over allegations linked to the Chuck Cadman affair.

On Sunday, Rempel said the lawsuit threat was proof of Trudeau's authoritarian instincts and ought to disqualify him from leading a G7 country. In 2011, Harper's litigiousness didn't stop Rempel from running as the Conservative candidate in Calgary-Nose Hill.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper speaks at the 2017 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington on March 26, 2017. (The Canadian Press)

A short history of prime ministers suing the opposition

Harper's lawsuit persisted throughout the 2008 election campaign — which ended with Harper's Conservatives defeating Dion's Liberals — only to be dropped shortly after. ("I would note that the leader of the Liberal Party is no longer in his position," Harper explained.) Still, for having followed through on his threat, Harper became the first (and so far only) prime minister in Canadian history to actually carry out a threat to sue the leader of the Official Opposition.

But Harper is hardly the first prominent political figure in this country to at least threaten to haul critics before a judge.

In 1998, Jean Chrétien offered to sue the Reform Party in response to a claim that he had awarded a Senate seat to someone as a political favour. In 2005, Paul Martin demanded an apology — and the Liberal Party's lawyer sent a letter to Harper to threaten legal action — after Harper suggested that the Liberals were associated with "organized crime."

In 2011, Harper's defence minister, Peter MacKay, threatened to sue opposition MPs over comments they had made about his questionable ride aboard a search-and-rescue helicopter. "Minister MacKay has had his character and personal reputation attacked," MacKay's spokesman pleaded — as if character assassination isn't a routine part of a parliamentarian's daily life.

Kathleen Wynne speaks to journalists at Queen's Park in Toronto on Monday, June 4, 2018. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

As premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne sued Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak, claiming she had been defamed by allegations related to a scandal involving the cancellation of two gas plants. A year later, and after the Liberals had defeated the PCs in a provincial election, Wynne dropped her suit.

But then, in 2017, Wynne filed suit again, this time against Hudak's successor as PC leader, Patrick Brown, after he suggested the premier herself was on trial in a case involving allegations of bribery.

Demanding truth and accuracy

It's not hard to see the need for more truth and accuracy in political discourse. Journalists have demanded it, with limited success, for as long as candidates for public office have been speaking in public. In recent years this demand has given rise to the "fact check" genre of journalism; Donald Trump's presidency has birthed an entire sub-industry of writers and reporters dedicated to imposing accountability on his endless stream of fact-free assertions and wild claims.

It's also tempting to think the courts might offer some authoritative relief in a truth-challenged era of social media and 'fake news'.

The Liberals seem eager to at least establish that Scheer can't be trusted to deliver an accurate account of recent events.

"These Conservatives, and frankly their leader, have a history of making untrue and defamatory statements for political gain," Liberal House leader Bardish Chagger said Monday.

To bolster their case, the Liberals pointed to inflammatory tweets that Scheer was alleged to have recently deleted.

The Conservatives responded with a dare: if Trudeau truly believes in both his case and his righteousness, the prime minister should commence court proceedings immediately.

Of course, Scheer also might be dared in the meantime to repeat the statements that Trudeau took issue with in the first place.

The value of free and open debate

These are bellicose days for democracies everywhere, and in heated moments it's not uncommon to hear a member of the House of Commons telling another MP to 'take it outside' — to physically leave the shelter of the House and repeat a statement or accusation in a place where the member is not protected from legal action by parliamentary privilege.

Within the walls of Parliament, MPs and senators are free to say whatever they want, without fear of legal repercussions. That's the power of parliamentary privilege. The idea — which has been around for centuries — is that Parliament, the primary forum for our democracy, must be a place for free, open and unencumbered debate. Only the elected representatives themselves, the members of the press gallery watching from above and the voters who cast ballots in elections can hold parliamentarians to account.

The results aren't always pretty. But it beats the alternative: opposition critics reluctant to hold the government to account due to 'libel chill'.

Except in the most extreme cases, it might be worth unofficially extending that principle — the idea that opposition statements aren't fair game for lawsuits, even when they're wrong — to the wider world beyond Parliament.

If it did nothing else, it might spare the courts the burden of having to adjudicate the torrent of defamatory half-truths and insults that too often passes for normal political discourse these days. The dismal responsibility for parsing this stuff can be left to journalists.

Vassy Kapelos takes a look back at instances when political leaders have threatened or filed lawsuits against political rivals. 1:36

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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