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From sweet tweets to full Twitter attack

No opponent is safe from our minister of public safety now

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It all started so innocently.

On Nov. 28 last year, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews opened a Twitter account. His first tweet was a shout-out to the staff and warden at Stony Mountain Institution, a federal penitentiary, which he had just visited:

"Great day in MB. Thanks to the warden and staff at Stony Mountain Institution for hosting today's drug detector dog demo."

It was a simple, almost elegant first post. It was fairly innocuous and at only 121 characters, it showed Toews had a firm grasp of the hard cap on Tweets. However, when you consider Toews has a well-established propensity to shoot from the lip first and ask questions later, and a tendency to bully anyone who disagrees with him or his party, you might conclude he is not the most promising candidate for an unfettered, unedited Twitter account.

This is a politician who has become renowned among a small audience of Manitoba political junkies for sending out long, rambling, emails to his "supporters," in which he angrily attacks opposition MPs, journalists and anyone else with the temerity to disagree with him. As a regular target of these emails, I have never responded to the tortured logic or his tenuous grasp of the facts. He is entitled to have his say. If anyone asked me for a reaction to his rants, I merely directed them to take note of the time the emails were sent -- which more often than not was somewhere around 3 a.m. -- and then expressed my regret that I had written something that caused Toews to lose sleep.

But that was before Toews discovered Twitter, a more immediate, pervasive and, we have come to learn, less thoughtful way of venting your most volatile thoughts the moment they burst into your skull. Toews slowly began to move from the innocuous to the abusive in his emails. He taunted the opposition, howled when they disagreed with him. When the opposition voted against a Tory crime bill, he accused them of helping child kidnappers.

How ironic it was, then, that just a few months after he embraced social media as a vehicle for his outbursts, he would become a victim of that same technology.

In February, a Liberal staffer released intimate details of Toews' divorce file through the anonymous Twitter account @Vikileaks. The tweets were brief and accurate and only revealed details from publicly available court documents. But still, politicians universally decried it as an unfair invasion of his privacy. This was followed up by YouTube videos by a group carrying the oxymoronic name Anonymous, demanding Toews withdraw the crime bill or face the release of additional embarrassing divorce details.

Toews has responded with unparalleled moral outrage. He asked the Speaker to find that his parliamentary privileges were violated by the @Vikileaks campaign and by the Anonymous threats. He had his personal lawyer persuade a Manitoba judge to release a private list of those people who accessed his divorce file. He has asked a parliamentary committee to investigate the @Vikileaks episode and the videos. All this from a man who has demonstrated no limits when it comes to bashing his opponents. Toews has accused opposition MPs of sympathizing with pedophiles, rapists and child pornographers. There is no debate with Vic; you are either with him, or you are a sociopathic, perverted deviant.

Despite all this, there was a backlash of sympathy for him. Liberal Leader Bob Rae was forced to apologize for @Vikileaks, and the staffer involved resigned. The Speaker agreed Toews' parliamentary privileges were violated by Anonymous and their idiotic effort to extort a minister of the Crown. Bag an official apology from an opposition leader, put a toe tag on a Liberal staffer and get a favourable ruling from the Speaker? For many politicians, that's a good day at the office.

But not Toews. On Thursday, he alleged that NDP MP Paul Dewar, a candidate for the leadership of that party, was behind a campaign to exploit the details of the divorce file. This was based on the revelation that a provincial NDP staffer, who happens to volunteer on Dewar's leadership campaign, had examined the divorce file.

Toews is now in full attack mode on Twitter, lambasting opposition parties for not supporting his bid to get a full parliamentary committee investigation of @Vikileaks and the Anonymous videos. He sparred with Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin, who frankly has made a pretty strong case on his own for denying politicians access to Twitter, and taunted the NDP to reveal how they have used public money to smear his good reputation.

Unfortunately, this is where Toews lacks any perspective on his own tenuous place in the universe. If his reputation has been tarnished, it has been by his own hand as much as anyone's. His closest political advisers pleaded with him to stop sending overnight email blasts, which they viewed as conduct unbecoming a federal cabinet minister. Those same advisers can hardly be pleased with his stream-of-consciousess Twitter activity.

The irony now is that as long as @ToewsVic lives, it appears we will be hearing about Vic Toews' divorce.

Well played, sir, well played.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2012 A9

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