The problem with Deputy Premier Cliff Cullen’s claim that he knew — the moment it left his lips — that the sexist remark he made at a business group meeting last week was wrong, is that he didn’t apologize for it right away.
Last Thursday at a Business Council of Manitoba annual general meeting, Cullen referenced a quote attributed to former British prime minister Winston Churchill: "A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest," is the analogy the deputy premier repeated.
In a written statement to the Free Press Monday, Cullen apologized for referencing the Churchill quote. He said he "immediately regretted" it. "I recognize my comment was inappropriate and I sincerely apologize for my actions," he said in an email. However, he wouldn’t agree to an interview on the matter, opting instead for political staff to issue a statement.
The minister’s story has holes in it. If Cullen, who also serves as the province’s minister of economic development, investment and trade, knew "immediately" that his comment was inappropriate, why didn’t he apologize right away? Why did he wait for a reporter to contact him before issuing an apology?
Was he really sorry, or was he just sorry he got caught? If he truly believed what he said was inappropriate, he would have retracted his comment and apologized for it immediately.
Cullen apologized again in the legislative assembly Tuesday during question period when asked about his comment. He also said he apologized to the Business Council of Manitoba, but he didn’t say when. He also didn’t explain why it took him so long to express regret.
These and other questions could have been asked of him by press gallery members, but Cullen refused to make himself available following question period. He chose to hide. It is now common for ministers in the Stefanson government not to address the media following question period, even when formal requests are made for interviews.
Making a sexist comment about the length of a woman’s skirt reveals what Cullen’s attitude is towards women. Whether he knows it or not, his comments are chauvinistic: he sees women as expendable, so much so that he thinks it’s acceptable to objectify them during a public speech with an inappropriate comment about their attire and how much of it covers their legs.
It’s not just a dumb or juvenile thing to say, it speaks to Cullen’s character. Obviously it wasn’t off the cuff — Cullen would have had time to think about the Churchill quote while he was preparing his speech. If he thought it was an inappropriate thing to say, he had plenty of time to think about it beforehand. He knew exactly what he was saying.
Elected officials, particularly those with the privilege of serving in cabinet, have an immense responsibility: they’re charged with making important decisions on behalf of the public. Many of the deliberations they are engaged in deal with difficult subject matters, including gender inequality, where good judgment is critical to serving the interests of society. Having good judgment can be demonstrated in many different ways. However, when someone is not enlightened enough to know that making quips about the length of women’s skirts is sexist and debases them, it’s unlikely they have the level of judgment required to tackle complex social issues.
Worse, when they hide from the media because they don’t want to answer questions about it, it raises serious questions about the sincerity of their regret.
It’s not enough for Cullen to issue a public apology, especially since he didn’t do so until he knew his comments would be reported in the media. If Premier Heather Stefanson was serious about standing up against sexism, she would ensure Cullen faced consequences for his actions. So far, she hasn’t, saying only that she takes these issues seriously and that the matter has been "dealt with," whatever that means.
At the very least, Cullen should be stripped of his deputy premier position and be required to take sensitivity training. His speeches should be approved, word for word, by an impartial third party before they are delivered. Consequences matter. Without them, this will be more easily swept under the rug.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.