Unsubstantiated Allegations and Accusations of Threatening Responses: The Legacy of Partisan Politics and the Need for Consensus Governance in PEI
This morning’s sitting of the Legislative Assembly (April 20,2018) began with Progressive Conservative MLAs, Darlene Compton and Steven Myers, standing on “Points of Privilege,” citing parliamentary rules and procedures, then announcing they would later be tabling documents containing information they believe constitute “threats.” Wow! Darlene in particular was visibly shaken and was obviously very emotional.
Compton and Myers apparently received these alleged threats as a result of Darlene Compton’s intervention in the House on Wednesday (April 18th) when she tabled documents alleging improprieties by certain individuals [Anna Keenan & Jordan Bober] each of whom are members of both the Green Party and the PEI Coalition for Proportional Representation (PRC); namely, that they shared private information with the Green Party they obtained from the PRC.
It goes without saying that MLAs should be (and are) protected within the Legislative Assembly, and can say just about anything they want – within the boundaries of what is deemed to be parliamentary language – without fear of reprisals or recrimination from other MLAs or members of the general public. They can state claims and make allegations while in the House without – for the most part – fear of legal consequence. If MLAs were to say certain things “outside” the protection of the legislative assembly which they are free to say “inside” the rails, they could potentially be charged and possibly found guilty of an offence such as “libel” or “defamation of character”. This parliamentary protection also suggests that no MLA should ever be subjected to anything that could reasonably be construed as a “threat” from other MLAs or members of the public.
On the other hand, MLAs must also take the utmost care not to abuse the privilege and protection afforded them while speaking in the Legislative Assembly. To say anything that could possibly cause undue harm to any individual (or any organization) without substantive, compelling evidence would clearly be an abuse of that privilege.
And that seems to be the key question generating considerable disagreement and tension in the current matter: did Compton have sufficient evidence to justify making public allegations of serious wrongdoing against two named individuals, and two provincial organizations, on Wednesday? Might there have been a more prudent and professional route that she and the PC Party could have taken to deal with this issue (e.g., bringing those concerns privately to the Chief Electoral Officer and/or Information Commissioner requesting an investigation)?
The leader of the Green Party, Peter Bevan-Baker, made an immediate and categorical denial of any wrongdoing by anyone in the Green Party, assuring fellow MlAs and the general public that there is absolutely no basis in fact for the allegations suggesting the Green Party received private information from the PRC. He went a step further by taking the initiative to formally request that both the Chief Electoral Officer and the Privacy Commissioner immediately investigate the PC allegations, tabling official letters he sent to the head of each agency in the Legislative Assembly the very next day (Thursday, April 19). On Thursday, P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation representative Mark Greenan told The Guardian he was “…shocked and disappointed to hear Opposition MLA Darlene Compton make comments he said were false” and in the same article, “Green party president Anna Keenan, who is a volunteer with the coalition, also denied the allegations.”
I’ve read dozens of comments on social media on this issue since Wednesday, many expressing the view that the Progressive Conservative party should not have made such serious allegations (which could potentially be very harmful to both individuals and organizations) without much more solid evidence. I was surprised to hear Steven Myers read (and then table) one of those posts as a “threat;” I had previously read that very same post on Facebook and didn’t read it as threatening comment at all. I just thought at the time that the person wasn’t clear that making unfounded allegations as a MLA may not be construed as “defamatory,” “libelous,” etc. and regarded as “illegal” in our court system; in other words, the person likely wasn’t fully aware of the parliamentary protections afforded MLAs. Further complicating the matter is the fact that Darlene Compton has a video posted on the PEI PC Party Facebook page (which is outside the protection of the Legislative Assembly) which repeats allegations and, in particular, calls into question the integrity and actions of Anna Keenan who, apparently, makes her living working in the field of data management.
Although I’m not privy to the full basis for the very serious allegations that have been made by the PC Party in this matter, it appears from what was said and tabled in the Legislative Assembly that the only basis for action was “hearsay testimony” from a number of individuals in Hannah Bell’s district who apparently belong to the PC party. This raises questions about the wisdom of tabling those allegations in the House and putting them on the public record: at a minimum, it’s terrible optics for the PCs.
That’s no doubt why so many people suspect that these public accusations constitute an unwarranted partisan attempt to discredit and undermine the “competition” which is doing better in the polls and currently gaining such prominence in PEI (e.g., the Green Party). So it’s not-at-all surprising that some people – especially Green Party members and those volunteering for and/or supporting the PR coalition – view what the PC Party has done as a “dirty” trick and very “partisan” political tactic.
For a political Party that just called for a “consensus government” option to be added to the ballot in the upcoming electoral reform referendum (an option that would make it easier for all MLAs to work together as a team, a “family” even) to take such an accusatory and public action against both the Green Party and the PEI Coalition for Proportional Representation, especially given what appears to be little or no credible evidence (hearsay testimony is not regarded as “credible evidence” in our legal system) just feels wrong.
Perhaps there’s more to this story than I’m currently aware of, and if there is, well I stand to be corrected. Nonetheless, what has transpired this week in the Legislative Assembly truly saddens me. I’m sure there was a less divisive and more professional way for this to have been handled by the PC Party. I’m also sure many believe it exposes a deep-seated desire within the PC Party to – as they say on the Survivor reality-TV show – “Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast,” the Greens, which is a far-cry from the dynamics of consensus decision-making and respectful dialogue that should be evident with all MLAs elected and expected to work together to bring about the best outcomes for all Islanders.
Regardless of the outcome of any pending investigations regarding the allegations made by Darlene Compton and the PC Party against the Green Party and PRC, I suspect the Progressive Conservative Party has already lost a significant degree of credibility with many Islanders by claiming to be committed to collaboration and dialogue and “consensus government” on the one hand, while taking preemptive action on the other hand in what definitely looks like an attempt to discredit another political party and advance their own partisan political interests.
PS: For the record, although I would ideally like to see and prefer a consensus model of governance for PEI; I don’t believe that’s a practical or wise option for the immediate future. I therefore fully endorse the MMP system that won the plebiscite and will be voting for that option in the upcoming referendum. If and when the MMP system gets established in PEI, a more congenial and less partisan atmosphere within the Legislative Assembly may then result in a collaborate and democratic process that might ultimately lead to a true “consensus” government and the abolition of political parties in PEI.