The politics of #MeToo

Michael McCabe discusses the politics of Me Too and how it is changing political discourse, using an example from recent events in Canada.


Martin Green is an incredibly indistinguishable name. So much so, that I just realised, for dramatic effect of course, that I should be starting off this piece by discussing a man named Patrick Brown. From 2006 until 2015, this man represented the city of Barrie, located 60 miles north of Toronto, in Canada’s House of Commons as a backbench member of the Conservative Party most notable for taking particularly pro-life stances. Previously, he had been involved in Ontario conservative party politics since his teens. Suddenly, however, this vaguely handsome, socially conservative, party-man bachelor announced in 2015 that he was running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives, Ontario’s provincial conservative party, without ever having served in the province’s Legislative Assembly.

Brown trounced the party’s preferred candidate on the back of his party organising skills while making little in the way of policy promises besides promising not to “revisit” any of the social issues on the basis of which anyone outside of Barrie hazily recognised his name. As Ontario’s Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne was and remains saddled with historic unpopularity, Brown and the Progressive Conservatives seemed on the glide path to an easy majority this coming June, especially after they released a glossy platform “magazine” that contained proposals that couldn’t have been more boringly centrist and sensible if they tried. Brown, a “conservative” mind you, even suggested that he was going let the Liberal government’s welfare innovation, their universal basic income pilot, continue if his party were voted into office. Ostensibly, what we have here is a run-of the-mill creature of the party, ideologically flexible and ambitious as hell. But before you tune out any further discussions of a typical politician with a stereotypical politician’s face running in a tedious election in a country known for being just a tad bland, there are some additional details of which you should be aware.

It is the evening of January 24 2018; a Wednesday. Patrick Brown steps up to the podium for a press conference at Queen’s Park, as Ontario’s Legislative Assembly is metonymically known. He denies 2 allegations of sexual assault that had yet to be broken by CTV News. Described as “categorically false” by Brown himself, the first allegation involves this locally-familiar politician plying an underage Barrie high schooler with alcohol, exposing himself to her and coercing her into brief oral sex. The second involves him, once again, plying a constituency office staffer with alcohol and climbing on top of her on a bed. Following that press conference, three of his top aides resigned collectively. Earlier, they had advised him in vain to resign the leadership immediately. In the early morning hours of the following day, Patrick Brown once again stepped up to a Queen’s Park podium and resigned the leadership.

His was not the only prominent political resignation in Canada in the space of about 24 hours: prior to his, Jamie Baillie, the Progressive Conservative Leader of Nova Scotia’s Opposition, resigned based on similar allegations; after Brown’s, Kent Hehr, the federal Minister for Sport in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, did as well. But Brown, as the favourite to become the Premier of a province that contains 40% of Canada’s population and 40% of its GDP, was the most prominent head to roll that day. Even sitting on stage at Davos, Justin Trudeau was called to respond to the events of earlier that day. Since then, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives have not caught a break as the party resident resigned because of, you guessed it, sexual assault allegations. Meanwhile, the party is gearing up for yet another leadership election that has to be wrapped up by the end of March so that campaign season isn’t completely cannibalised before the June election.

This wave of powerful and influential men appearing before flashing cameras with that unmistakable pursed-lips look of abject shame, all for startlingly similar reasons, started only October of last year. If you restrict your gaze to politics, Canada has most certainly not been the nation so rocked by allegations. There’s Damian Green and Michael Fallon on this very isle, Al Franken and Roy Moore across the pond, the resignation of the deputy leader of Norway’s largest political party and an allegation of rape against one of Emmanuel Macron’s government’s rising stars. There is, however, a telling difference between what happened in Toronto one evening not too long ago and what has happened in London, Washington, Paris and elsewhere. What’s unquestionably unique about this case was the speed involved in the sudden end of a promising career, not measured in the more typical weeks or months, but hours. In the case of Roy Moore, his allegations were reported on and discussed for weeks prior to the U.S. Senate special election in Alabama, yet he still had the temerity to remain in the race unrepentant, essentially making the argument “would you rather have a sexual predator as your next U.S. Senator or a Democrat?” Unsurprisingly, considering this was Alabama and Moore had the Allmighty R next to his name on the ballot, he lost by less than 2 percentage points. In the case of that French minister, Gérald Darmanin, whose allegation was originally reported to police in 2009, other members of the cabinet have stood by him with calls for due process, including the minister for gender equality, Marlène Schiappa, whose prized project is a proposal to fine street catcallers and similar thousands of euros.

Much of the lack of speedy consequences that such allegations bring down on the perpetrating politicians can be attributed to the inclination towards due process and the benefit of the doubt. Damian Green was referred to the Cabinet Office for investigation; Al Franken, initially at least, was similarly referred to the Senate Ethics Committee. Prior to this recent trifecta of resignations, one of the flashpoints in Canada in the debate over how to address systemic sexual assault and harassment was the firing of University of British Columbia Professor Steven Galloway. There was heated debate and a couple rounds of name-calling over whether the professor was afforded his due process, including Margaret Atwood being called a “bad feminist” over daring to suggest that due process in such circumstances may be justified and appropriate. In the cases of the politicians detailed earlier, both political supporters and opponents have described the process involved with dealing with their allegations as suspect. In the case of Patrick Brown, there was no process to speak of; over the course of a few hours, he was unceremoniously dumped. But that, however, is not as problematic as it may seem.

Within hours following the early-morning resignation, Brown’s erstwhile deputy leaders were standing before a podium of their own, declaring the need to listen to the victims, take them seriously, and that “The goal for us is to become the government in June.” Isn’t that refreshing? A frank public statement of prioritising political expediency over personal loyalty. If you think about it, however, this is closer to being appropriate than being sleazily political. In an ideal world, the point of a political party and its affiliated politicians is to zealously advance their policy proposals and effectively represent their voters. Therefore, if a politician becomes a liability, the aim is to defend that party and what it stands for rather than that politician. Operating on a rather Machiavellian level, the leaders of the Progressive Conservatives knew that in this climate in which women’s stories about abusive men are finally coming to light and being taken seriously, it was anything but politically advantageous to hold on to a leader that no one had particularly strong feelings about to begin with. But even if that last bit weren’t case, as it was for me and Al Franken, there comes a point when you see that these politicians aren’t elected for the sake of themselves, they are elected for what they allegedly believe in.

Those deputy leaders most certainly had the Machiavellian case on their mind for getting rid of Brown, but they also knew they had more important things to care about than defending Brown, for the sake of their voters. Politicians, given their responsibility to the public at large, are fundamentally different creatures from film producers or journalists, the process of social reproach is necessarily less forgiving. In comparison to other countries, various levels of government throughout Canada are being serious about the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment afflicting society. Politicians there are rightfully taking these lessons to heart as who really needs defending. And it certainly isn’t a party hack from Barrie.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.