By Roy Urback on CBC Website
Until artificial intelligence progresses to the point where intelligent machines take over our Westminster system (yes, I’m scared, too), we will continue to appoint flawed humans to important government posts.
Some of these people will come with pasts more fraught than others, but show me a closet without a skeleton and chances are there’s a rug nearby with an ugly lump.
That’s why I look at the expunged assault charge for governor general-designate Julie Payette, as reported Tuesday by iPolitics, with little more than a shrug.
It is newsworthy, certainly: there is hardly a compelling reason why the news that Canada’s next governor general once faced a second-degree assault charge ought to be kept from Canadians, other than perhaps for Payette’s personal privacy, though that’s generally forfeited when assuming as high profile a role as representative of the Queen.
An ‘unfounded’ charge
If we take Payette at her word that the 2011 charge was “unfounded,” then it should constitute a mere line or two in her biography, and certainly not disqualify her from her soon-to-be-assumed role. The charge was laid, quickly dropped and subsequently expunged, according to reports. See “flawed humans,” above.
What makes the story exceptional, however, is the prime minister’s reluctance to address the report with anything beyond a cursory “no comment.” Indeed, when pressed by iPolitics, Kate Purchase, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s director of communications, said simply: “We’ve got no comment on this.” She also would not confirm whether the prime minister was aware of the charge before appointing Payette (though it’s difficult to imagine he wasn’t, considering the way candidates for the post are vetted).
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In a thoughtful column for iPolitics, Susan Delacourt posited that Trudeau’s response might not have been so nonchalant had reports surfaced of a male governor general-designate with an expunged assault charge in his history.
“It brings up a thought-provoking question,” she wrote. “Could the PMO simply say ‘no comment’ in response to reports about an assault charge involving a male appointee?”
“Probably not,” she answers. “Let’s all cast our minds back to Trudeau’s delivery of swift justice against two former Liberal MPs accused of pressing unwelcome advances against two female New Democrat MPs.”
Delacourt ends the discussion there, but I think it merits a more detailed comparison.
In the case of those two former Liberal MPs — Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti — there were no actual charges levelled against them when the news broke back in November 2014. In fact, the internal investigation of the matter came only after Trudeau announced that the pair would be suspended from caucus because of “allegations of serious misconduct.”
At the time, the MPs hadn’t even been informed of the specific allegations against them. Nevertheless, Trudeau stood before cameras to declare that he would “give the benefit of the doubt to those who come forward.”
Months went by and one of the original accusers gave a detailed account of a sexual encounter with Pacetti to Huffington Post Canada, while a Toronto human rights lawyer hired by Trudeau conducted an independent investigation into the allegations.
Finally, in March, Pacetti and Andrews were informed — via media leaks, not from their party, and before they had a chance to look at the final report from the external investigator — that they would be permanently booted from the Liberals. Trudeau confirmed the news shortly thereafter.
There are obvious differences between the Payette case and that of Pacetti and Andrews, the most significant of which being that the allegations against the latter two concern their conduct while in office, not six years prior. But the chief point here is that when Trudeau made that first public statement back in November 2014, the allegations against them were unproven.
Yet instead of quietly investigating the matter before going public, Trudeau opted for what was likely the more politically expedient move: he talked about them publicly — remarking on the importance of individuals coming forward, and about power dynamics, and about safe workplaces — even if it helped prematurely convict the MPs in the court of public opinion.
It’s not a perfect comparison, but the difference in approach is striking: a couple of men were treated as guilty before we knew the facts, and Trudeau jumped in front of the microphone at seemingly the first available opportunity. But now, with a woman at the centre of the controversy, he’s totally mum. It’s all the more bizarre considering that, in the eyes of the law, Payette’s case is settled.
It’s not far-fetched to think that if it was discovered that a male governor general had an assault charge in his past, Trudeau would seize the opportunity to evangelize about male aggression and domestic violence. Then again, I don’t think Trudeau would appoint a male governor general with a past assault charge — even one that had been dropped and expunged — in the first place.
Payette’s past shouldn’t disqualify her from the role of governor general, but it shouldn’t be ignored by the prime minister, either. Trudeau was eager to get his comments in before; he hardly has a good reason for staying quiet now.
This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section.