Matt Gurney: Misleading the public is bad, even if you're a Liberal
From guns to the Emergencies Act, the public safety minister owes Canadians better than lies and evasion.
To celebrate World Press Freedom Day last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said some wonderful things about the importance of truth.
“In the age of disinformation and misinformation,” the statement read, “independent, fact-based reporting is vital. We must all come together to support the work of journalists and double down in the fight against disinformation.”
Stirring stuff. But does the prime minister, his government and the Liberals’ many supporters think any of that actually applies to them?
Marco Mendicino is the federal minister of public safety — a tough job in challenging times. But I’ve come to the unsettling conclusion that Minister Mendicino is not being honest with Canadians.
On the issue of gun control, I’m sorry to say he’s simply lying.
Last week here at The Line, I analyzed the Liberals’ proposed Bill C-21, a package of gun-control measures. My views on this file differ sharply from the government’s. But I’d have hoped that we could at least agree that honesty should be central to the government’s proposals and publicity.
No dice. Last weekend, on CTV’s Question Period, the minister said this: “Bill C-21 doesn't target law-abiding gun owners, it targets handgun violence, it targets organized crime … I have enormous respect for law-abiding gun owners ... ”
Well, let’s just go have a gander at minister’s own webpage, eh? The Public Safety Ministry summarized the proposed legal and regulatory changes. There are 13 specific proposed changes to the Firearms Act. Two are “internal” to the government itself and don’t directly bear on gun owners, law-abiding or otherwise. One targets firearms-related marketing, another is exemptions for “elite sports shooters.” The remaining nine are entirely aimed at the “law-abiding gun owners” the minister insists aren’t being targeted. The page also notes that the government will also be changing regulations (separately from the proposed bill) relating to the safe storage of firearms and ammunition magazine limits … again, aimed entirely and solely at law-abiding gun owners. Indeed, along with some entirely process-focused Criminal Code proposals, there’s only one — one — proposed change that actually focuses on gun smuggling, which is widely believed by law enforcement to be the primary driver of firearms homicides in Canada. (Other planned changes are too vague to be properly analyzed in this context, but could plausibly be aimed at smuggling or blackmarket sales.)
But do the math. One clear mention of smuggling, at least 11 that only affect licensed owners. Denying this is dishonest, full stop.
Let’s be clear: the minister is entirely within his rights to argue that the proposed measures targeting lawful owners are necessary, appropriate and reasonable. These are legitimate debates. What is not up for debate is that the majority of these proposals exclusively target and/or affect law-abiding gun owners. There’s no ambiguity here. The meaning and purpose of C-21 is clear.
I wish this was an isolated example of Minister Mendicino misleading the public. There are troubling signs that it may not be so. Comments made by the minister regarding the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act in February have been under scrutiny, including by us here at The Line. It doesn’t look good.
The context here is complicated, but matters. The federal government has yet to offer a specific explanation as to why it invoked the act to deal with the occupation of Ottawa and blockades at various border crossings. Your Line editors have strived to be fair and even-handed in our coverage of this. What was happening in February was very serious. The federal government may well have had completely reasonable grounds to invoke the Emergencies Act, though the legal bar is very high. The act can only be invoked when a crisis “cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.”
Convenient, useful, helpful, and even effective don’t cut it. The act must be necessary. It’s not enough to sombrely intone that it was an unprecedented situation. It’s also not enough to point to the very real disruption to daily life the occupation in the capital and the border blockades were causing. The act sets a very high bar, and the government has yet to demonstrate that it cleared it.
A government must keep some secrets. Granted. But in the aftermath of the first-ever invocation of the Emergencies Act in its modern form, it is incumbent upon the government to offer the maximum possible transparency to the Canadian public about why they chose to invoke the act, and what informed that decision. Hiding behind cabinet confidentiality on general principles won’t do. The Emergencies Act is far too powerful to be used by the cabinet when only the cabinet, said cabinet itself insists, can know the relevant evidence underpinning its invocation. Asking us to trust them without any external oversight simply isn’t how things can work in a democracy. This is an accountability catastrophe unfolding in real time.
And yet here we are. All that we have heard, repeatedly, from Minister Mendicino is that the police said they needed it, and the government invoked the act on this basis.
Consider these quotes, from the minister’s April 26 appearance before the Parliamentary committee investigating the invocation of the Emergencies Act. (My emphasis added; some of these quotes have been lightly truncated for length and clarity, you can read the full transcript here.)
“[The government] invoked the act because it was the advice of non-partisan professional law enforcement that existing authorities were ineffective at the time to restore public safety at all of the ports of entry …”
“As we took our decision … we were following the advice of various levels of law enforcement, including the RCMP … we wanted to be sure at bottom that we were giving law enforcement all of the tools and the resources that they needed to respond.”
“Law enforcement was very strong in its … I don't want to speak for every last serving member of law enforcement, but there was a very strong consensus that we needed to invoke the act.”
Okay. That’s pretty clear. But thus far, both the RCMP and the Ottawa Police Service have denied asking for it.
This isn’t a slamdunk point against the minister. Maybe it was the OPP, or one of the forces that oversees security on Parliament Hill. All the minister needs to do is offer just the tiniest bit more clarity. Given the seriousness of the crisis, this ought not to be a stretch or unfair hurdle for the government. Instead of offering any clarity, though, earlier this week, the deputy minister for public safety, Rob Stewart, appeared before the same committee, and said that the minister’s earlier remarks had been misconstrued. Minister Mendicino did not mean to say that the police had asked for the act, Deputy Minister Stewart said, but that the police said they needed the powers only the act could give them.
Let’s set aside the fact that a distinction that fine would cut through diamonds. There are two other big, big problems here.
The first is that since Minister Mendicino’s testimony in late April, the press has widely reported the minister as having said that the police asked for the act (or advised that they needed the powers within, if you’re a stickler for distinctions without differences). If this was some sort of gigantic erroneous assumption on the part of the press, what in God’s name has the minister been doing these last weeks in allowing that impression to persist? It’s not like the guy’s staffers don’t know how to get in touch with a reporter. Any misunderstanding could have been easily and instantly addressed in a statement, or a Twitter DM. That kind of back-and-forth communication is utterly routine in this business.
(To make it easy for any member of Minister Mendicino’s staff who may quibble with this column: firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter.)
The other second, gigantic problem for the minister is that a plain reading of his various statements makes it extremely goddamn obvious that he was telling the Canadian public, and the parliament, that the federal cabinet invoked the Emergencies Act because the police told the cabinet it was needed. Again, you can spend a few hours pondering how many angels can perch on the difference between a police agency asking for it or saying they needed the powers contained within, but the substance of the minister’s message to the committee was plain and clear, no matter how hard he and his poor deputy minister may wish otherwise.
Minister Mendicino’s comments haven’t been limited to the committee, either. He’s made similar comments in the House during Question Period (my emphasis added, once more). For example, on May 2nd: “At the recommendation of police, we invoked the Emergencies Act to protect Canadians, because keeping Canadians safe will always be this government's priority.” Or April 28th: “It is also a fact that we invoked the Emergencies Act only after police forces agreed” and also, “It was only after we received advice from police that we invoked the act.” And March 1st: “[We] did invoke the Emergencies Act, but we did so as a last resort and on the advice of the police.” And February 28th: “We saw borders shut, we saw Canadians laid off, and we saw our communities and our neighbourhoods in danger. That is the reason why we had to invoke the Emergencies Act, and we did so on the basis of non-partisan, professional advice from law enforcement.” And February 21st: “The Emergencies Act will continue to play a critical role in ending the illegal blockades. We will follow the advice of the police and of other experts, who are telling us that the act is still necessary.”
Gosh, how could anyone ever have misunderstood what the minister was trying to say? Good thing Deputy Minister Stewart could pop on over to the committee and straighten this out. We wouldn’t want anyone to go on misinterpreting the boss, right?
I don’t know if the Emergencies Act was needed. It’s very possible the cabinet had information that, at the very least, made invoking the Emergencies Act a reasonable call. Real life is complicated. There aren’t a lot of absolutes. Good faith and reasonable effort goes a long way with me, and with Canadians generally, I think.
But words mean things. The federal public safety minister has told the Canadian people, repeatedly, that the police wanted the act, and only partisans desperate to find Minister Mendicino a fig leaf to shield his dignity think it matters if they asked for it or advised that it was necessary. The minister and his government can clarify the timeline and details at any time — and they should want to. Instead they sent out a deputy minister to muddy the waters with a little wordplay. This isn’t a good look for a government that is, again, asking us to trust their judgment, since only they know the evidence that could prove their judgment right (or wrong).
Mendicino didn’t help his case on Thursday, when he told the Toronto Star that he’d always been “consistent” in his remarks. Consistency isn’t the point, minister. Vague and unhelpful answers that are consistent don’t suffice. There is obvious confusion and doubt here, on a matter of paramount public interest. Your job is to clear that up, not stay faithful to a talking point.
A responsible government and minister wouldn’t need to be told this, or prodded and cajoled into being transparent to the maximum extent operational security will permit. Which brings us back to where we started: the PM’s lovely remarks last month about the scourge of disinformation.
Ask a Liberal, and I’m sure they’d tell you all about the problems on the right: the conspiracy theories, the fake news, and yes, the misinfo and the disinfo. And they’d be right about a lot of it. The Canadian conservative movement is indeed an anti-intellectual wasteland today, where loud voices shouting insane things have substantially displaced serious proposals and valid criticisms of government policy. It is a huge problem that is getting worse, and is a direct threat to our democracy.
It’s not the only problem or threat, though, because this isn’t confined to the right. Minister Mendicino is lying to the public about his government’s gun-control measures. His ministry, and his government, if not engaged in outright lying, are clearly going the extra mile to avoid offering basic and warranted disclosure regarding the events of February.
Given that the Liberals have taken message control and habitual prevarication to levels Stephen Harper’s PMO would find familiar, if not impressive, the Emergencies Act silliness may be as much about reflexive, muscle-memory evasion as any deliberate plan. But it’s sowing (very possibly justified) doubt and confusion about the government’s honesty at the worst possible time.
Remember: these are the guys who want to combat misinformation online and regulate the news media. The public safety minister’s own utterances on gun control wouldn’t clear any reasonably set standard the government could plausibly come up with, unless they simply exempted any Liberal from the rules, on the basis of their inherent and unassailable well-meaning. And the Emergencies Act nonsense isn’t inspiring much confidence, either.
This isn’t good enough. I’m not asking Justin Trudeau or Minister Mendicino or any Liberal (elected or merely a supporter) to hold themselves and this government to any unusual or impossible standard. Just one they’d demand apply to a Conservative.
And if you, a member of the Canadian public, don’t expect at least that much from them, I regret to inform you that you are very much part of the problem. Lying and evading fair questions on matters of high public interest, or any matter, aren’t okay just because it’s a Liberal. Minister Mendicino owes Canadians better. If he can’t or won’t provide it, he should quit.
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