Randall Denley: Doug Ford chose compassion over expediency in keeping quiet over MPP’s sexual misconduct allegations

Randall Denley: Doug Ford chose compassion over expediency in keeping quiet over MPP’s sexual misconduct allegations
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It’s easy to say that Premier Doug Ford did the wrong thing when he dismissed a cabinet minister and a senior staff member over allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour, but failed to give a full and truthful explanation of why.

Last Friday, the public was told Economic Development Minister Jim Wilson was leaving cabinet and caucus to battle an addiction. Some expressed sympathy and support for Wilson, but others wondered why he was being kicked out of caucus over a medical problem.

At one level, it’s blazingly obvious that in the #MeToo era, one cannot and should not cover up the sexual misdeeds of a senior politician. That concept was not news to Ford and the advisers who helped him deal with the problem.

If he had chosen to handle the problem strictly as a communications issue, Ford had a risk-free option. According to a source familiar with the situation, complaints were raised about both men, the complainants presented credible evidence to support their stories and the minister and the staffer admitted their behaviour. Ford fired them both immediately. It was quick and appropriate action.

If Ford had held a press conference Friday night and told us what he’d done, it would have been difficult to criticize his response. One can certainly argue that’s exactly what he should have done.

There is, however, one other element that complicated that neat and tidy scenario, and it proved to be the decisive factor for Ford and his advisers. As Ford confirmed at a press conference Wednesday, the person who was affected by Wilson’s behaviour was adamant that the nature of the complaint not be made public. It’s difficult to come forward with this kind of allegation, something we surely all know by now. The person feared the embarrassing glare of publicity.

Ford decided to do everything possible to protect that person’s privacy, so a statement was made that was only a half-truth. The hope, obviously a long shot, was that the whole story wouldn’t leak out.

The same approach was taken with Kimber, although the argument for limiting the truth is weaker there. The story of his dismissal could have come out with little potential harm to the recipients of his inappropriate texts. One wouldn’t expect the government to name them, and their identities are only of interest to Queen’s Park insiders.

The decision to limit information on the Wilson situation was based on compassion for the person affected by the minister’s actions, even though putting out the whole story would have served Ford better.

Maybe that was the wrong thing to do, but at a human level, would it really have been better to say the complainant that you weren’t going to honour his request for privacy? That would have been difficult for the complainant, and would likely deter others from coming forward in the future.

It’s not just political and business leaders who must consider the needs of the public versus the needs of the individual. As experienced media people know, weighing the public interest against harm to a particular person is part of the job. It’s why most media organizations have a policy of not naming victims of sexual assault, for example.

The approach Ford took with the Wilson issue is markedly similar to the way Prime Minister Justin Trudeau handled the departure of cabinet minister Hunter Tootoo back in 2016. Tootoo quit cabinet because of addiction issues, Trudeau said. The PM later admitted he was trying to protect the identity of a staffer with whom Tootoo was having an inappropriate sexual relationship.

For political leaders, the safest course of action is to put themselves first, get the whole story out, and not worry about the victim. It’s a sound communications strategy, but it’s a poor human response. Both Ford and Trudeau realized that. Both tried to do something for the victim. It didn’t work out.

It would be surprising if Ford’s misleading communication about Wilson’s departure wasn’t also an attempt to cut the MPP some slack. People who engage in sexual misbehaviour don’t get much sympathy these days, nor should they, but let’s not forget that Jim Wilson served the public for 28 years as an MPP. He waited 15 years in opposition for a chance to get back in government and he was doing a good job. In a real court, that’s the kind of thing that is taken into consideration. Maybe it should be in the court of public opinion, as well.

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