National Column: Business as usual against backdrop of sexual-misconduct reckoning

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by Chantal Hebert

As MPs return to Parliament Hill this week, all parties are bracing for the possibility that a variation of the crisis that has engulfed the Ontario Tories could strike them.

In matters of sexual misconduct, no federal political organization can blithely assume it is bulletproof. Since Ontario Tory leader Patrick Brown’s brutal fall from grace last week, each has discreetly been scouring its closets for clues of potential sexual misconduct trouble to come.

Kent Hehr – the junior Liberal minister who left Justin Trudeau’s cabinet last week after he was accused of making sexually inappropriate comments to women – was already in trouble before the Brown story broke. It likely accelerated his demise.

Call it a case of belated due diligence, for it was only a matter of time before the #MeToo movement caught up to Canada’s political class.

In the House of Commons, MPs got down to debating a bill designed to reinforce the safeguards against sexual harassment. It was the first piece of legislative business on the 2018 agenda. At the invitation of the NDP, they unanimously approved the bill in principle and fast-tracked it to a parliamentary committee.

But there is only so much the adoption of after-the-fact measures will do to shelter federal
parliamentarians and their parties from the #MeToo storm that has hit the Ontario Progressive
Conservatives.

Based on more than three decades of Parliament Hill watching, the question is not whether there are or have been sexual misconduct skeletons in every party closet but whether one or more will come back to rattle its political family.

The timing and the high-profile roles of the protagonists in the eye of the storm in the Queen’s Park developments make it a political scandal of epic proportion. The decapitation of the Ontario Tory leadership only months before an election that was the party’s to lose is an event for the history books.

But the substance of the allegations made against Brown and ex-party president Rick Dykstra, who also resigned under a similar cloud this weekend, pertain to actions that many in high places on Parliament Hill, as in other legislatures, have long dismissed as boys-will-be-boys behaviour.

It was not so long ago that Brown and Dykstra were sitting on Stephen Harper’s Conservative benches. Some of the alleged events date back to the federal Conservative watch.

Now federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is facing pointed questions including from some of his own MPs as to whether the party under his predecessor turned a blind eye to the issue.

This year’s sitting of Parliament was always going to face stiffer-than-usual competition for attention.

In the big economic picture, the fate of NAFTA almost certainly matters more than the upcoming federal budget. As MPs were making their way back to Parliament, the latest chapter in that ongoing story was unfolding in Montreal.

Even before Brown’s dramatic exit from the scene, federal politics were going to take a back seat to the Ontario and Quebec election campaigns in June and October respectively, no later than the spring. Because of the magnitude of the earthquake that has befallen the Ontario Tories, that has already happened.

The aftershocks of what could be a fractious provincial leadership campaign will be felt on Parliament Hill for there are less than six degrees of separation between the federal and Ontario parties, especially in an election year.

This is not the reopening of Parliament Canada’s parties had been strategizing for only a week ago.

Of course on Monday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was – as promised – taken to task by the
Conservative opposition for the ethical breach he committed when he accepted the hospitality of the Aga Khan and holidayed on the latter’s private island. And, of course, the government and the official opposition went through the opening moves of a pitched procedural battle over the legislation that is meant to pave the way to the legalized sale of cannabis next summer.

There were questions about the Pacific trade deal Trudeau has agreed to sign and about the government’s requirement that organizations seeking summer jobs grants attest they respect abortion rights.

The House also marked the anniversary of last year’s murderous shooting at a Quebec City mosque.

But for now at least it is all happening against the backdrop of a collective wait for a possible other shoe or shoes to drop on the sexual misconduct front.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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