When Political Disputes Turn Legal

Albert Einstein once said that politics was more difficult than physics. His comment arose in the context of why humans could discover atomic power but could not properly find the means to control it.

Control in politics is illusory. And sometimes when things get out of control the disputes end up in courts.

The Premier of Ontario threatened legal action today against Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak for his statements over the gas plant scandal. The comments are apparently repeated on the party’s website and campaign materials, outside of the legislature where they would normally be protected by privilege.

The Premier’s letter follows.

Dear Mr. Hudak

During your press conference on March 27th you made several false, misleading and defamatory allegations about me. You alleged that I personally “oversaw and possibly ordered the criminal destruction of documents” and that criminal conduct took place in my office. The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party repeated these false allegations on its website and in a public mailing.

These allegations and accusations are false and utterly unsupported, and you ought to know it.

As political leaders it is our role and public duty to engage in spirited political debate on issues. The decision to relocate the gas plants and the facts related to the ongoing police investigation are legitimate subjects for this political debate. False, misleading and defamatory statements are not, and they represent the worst kind of politics. That is why I am writing this open letter to you.

There should be no tolerance for false and defamatory accusations as a means to gain political power.

I am asking you and your caucus to immediately stop repeating these untrue statements and to immediately remove them from the PC Party website and all other communications.

I have sought and obtained legal advice regarding your comments, and if steps are not taken immediately, I will have no choice but to take all necessary and appropriate steps to ensure your false statements are corrected.

Kathleen Wynne

Premier of Ontario

Comments

  1. David Collier-Brown

    One of the unfortunate features of politics is that “the big lie” is effective, and that one’s strongest defence against it is a suit.

    In a less civilized era, one could at least chop of the miscreant’s head (;-))

    We’ve given up on that, to preserve “the King’s peace”, which is a genuinely good thing, but we’ve fallen behind in providing justice against very severe efforts to harm one’s reputation, in order to prevent one from competing against their accuser in an election…

    Ah, well, perhaps we could go back to trial by battle for special cases. Sabres at dawn!

  2. I am not a specialist, but wouldn’t the Premier’s own Bill 83 — An Act to encourage participation on matters of public interest and to dissuade persons from bringing legal proceedings that interfere with such participation — make it difficult to obtain a remedy in a case like this one?

  3. Anne,
    The Bill you mention is indeed intended to foster greater public discourse.
    I do not think the qualified privilege amendments to the Libel and Slander Act or the summary proceedings changes to the Courts of Justice Act would have direct bearing here, or the Premier believes strongly enough in the case they would be making.

  4. If Bill 83 were passed, the Tories could try to dismiss an action by the Premier on the ground that the action unduly restricted expression on a matter of public interest. Whether the motion to dismiss would succeed, I couldn’t guess. Ironically the bill has not been making progress in the House because the Tories keep talking to the maximum allowed, despite the other parties’ urging that it be passed at second reading and sent to committee.

  5. John,
    I believe s. 137.1(4) would have bearing here, at least from the Premier’s perspective,

    No dismissal
    (4) A judge shall not dismiss a proceeding under subsection (3) if the responding party satisfies the judge that,
    (a) there are grounds to believe that,
    (i) the proceeding has substantial merit, and
    (ii) the moving party has no valid defence in the proceeding; and
    (b) the harm likely to be or have been suffered by the responding party as a result of the moving party’s expression is sufficiently serious that the public interest in permitting the proceeding to continue outweighs the public interest in protecting that expression.

  6. That’s the heart of the bill, no question, Omar. I just am not in a position to speculate how the arguments would play out on either side.