August 12, 2020

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Opinion

Tories react to allegation with threat of legal action

PC MLA Cliff Graydon during question period at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Thursday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

PC MLA Cliff Graydon during question period at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Thursday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/10/2018 (667 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Last week, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government showed that when confronted with possible sexual misconduct by one of its MLAs, it can be downright threatening.

In this case, the threats were not issued to the MLA in question — Cliff Graydon of Emerson — but rather to the news organization that attempted to uncover and expose the abhorrent behaviour.

Last week, the Free Press began investigating a story about Graydon and inappropriate comments he allegedly made to a woman working at the legislature. It wasn’t the first time Graydon got into trouble for his comments; earlier this year he was disciplined by his own party for making offensive comments about asylum seekers from the U.S. who cross the border in his riding.

In this most recent incident, Graydon invited a young woman to sit on his lap in front of large group of people at a packed legislative building luncheon.

Our reporter quickly confirmed the incident in question did occur.

For two days last week, the Free Press inquired about Graydon’s actions. For two days, PC caucus staff promised an on-the-record response, but none was forthcoming.

Finally, when the reporter informed caucus staff the Free Press would publish the story with or without official comment, the premier’s chief of staff, Phil Houde, responded with force.

In an email to Free Press editor Paul Samyn on Oct. 11, Houde said he was "shocked that a member of your staff would behave in such a manner." Houde went on to say that he had sent the reporter’s email "to our legal counsel for advice."

It is not unusual for media outlets to set deadlines for responses from government officials, politicians or political parties that are unresponsive. Otherwise, by not responding, they could prevent some stories from being published or broadcast.

However, it is highly unusual for governments to threaten journalists with legal action for making inquiries about a legitimate story.

Cynics might go as far as to say that Houde’s response was an overreaction designed to chill a news organization from digging deeper into the story. For what reason, we may never know.

The threat does bring into question the PC caucus’s suggestion that the Graydon matter was handled to everyone’s satisfaction. Further, it paints the image of a government willing to take extraordinary measures — including a threat of legal action against a newspaper — to protect one of its MLAs and the staff who handled the original complaint.

It should be noted that before the Free Press started its inquiries, the PC caucus had no intention of revealing any details about Graydon’s misconduct.

After refusing for several days to make a comment, the Tory caucus eventually issued a news release on Friday confirming that allegations had been made against one of its members, that they had been dealt with in accordance with new provincial policies dealing with sexual misconduct that "respect the impacted individual’s right to privacy and confidentiality while also ensuring that appropriate measures are taken."

The PC caucus has refused to say what, if any, additional discipline will be handed out although sources indicated that the PC caucus may choose to conduct a vote in two weeks — the legislative assembly is on a break this week — on whether Graydon should be punished further.

Politically, this remains a problem for Premier Brian Pallister. When similar allegations were made against NDP MLA Mohinder Saran, he was eventually expelled from his party’s caucus. "Eventually" is the key word here; the NDP bungled the handling of the allegations against Saran for months before reaching their decision.

Even so, that sets a precedent for the punishment of an elected official who somehow missed the memo about the seismic change in attitudes about what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour. If Graydon is given a pass, then there will be a clear contrast between how the NDP and Tories deal with similar allegations.

In February, Pallister introduced new policies to make it easier for government employees to report inappropriate behaviour. "There need be no fear of reprisal," the premier told people throughout the ranks of the civil service and legislative assembly.

Pallister’s new policy was in direct response to the Saran incident, and to the subsequent allegations the NDP had ignored concerns about unwanted touching by former NDP cabinet minister Stan Struthers. Pallister’s goals may have been noble and sincere, but his motivation was purely political. And his policy, as it turns out, a bit naive.

Shortly before Pallister unveiled the new harassment protocol, it was learned that former deputy minister Rick Mantey had been fired by the Tories for inappropriate behaviour toward a female staffer. Although Mantey was terminated, no details were made public. As a result, he was able to secure a prestigious position with a charity overseen by the British Royal Family, a position he subsequently lost after the Free Press published a story about his firing.

Look at the Graydon and Mantey incidents, and you can see clearly that victims of sexual harassment still do not feel confident enough to see the perpetrators fully punished for their behaviour.

As is the case in most incidents of this kind, Graydon had, and continues to have, power over the woman he insulted. As a result of the imbalance in their relationship, the victim no doubt believes that if the perpetrators are punished too severely, it will blow back on her. That seeking justice in these instances is tantamount to career suicide.

If our goal is to create a culture where women feel confident to not only come forward with allegations, but press for real punishment, then we’ve still got a way to go as evidenced by the slap on the wrist that it appears Graydon is going to get.

Which brings us back to the threat of legal action.

This is not the first time Pallister has used legal threats to try to stop the Free Press from performing its duties. Earlier this year, Pallister served the newspaper with a defamation notice for a story we wrote that accused the premier of not paying a luxury property tax on his vacation home in Costa Rica. In the notice, Pallister demanded an apology and that the paper reveal its source for the story.

The premier admitted four months later that he was, in fact, in arrears to the tune of $8,000 on his Costa Rica property taxes. Despite that revelation, he has refused to withdraw his threat of legal action against the paper and continues to demand an apology.

In pursuit of a new culture of accountability, the premier should ask himself this: will women ever feel safe working for a government and party led by a man who uses threats and intimidation to get what he wants?

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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History

Updated on Monday, October 15, 2018 at 11:58 AM CDT: Adds image, related items

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