Mansplaining public policy

Happy International Women’s Day, friends, readers and subscribers. Over the past month we’ve seen how two strong and determined women can shake up the government.

It’s been a treat to watch how Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, and Jane Philpott, the former Treasury Board President, broke open a can of worms that grabbed the attention of the Prime Minister, his principal secretary, and the highest-ranking civil servant in the land.

Good for them. It’s not often we get to look behind the curtain and see how government really works.

Justin Trudeau didn’t do himself any favours in his press conference yesterday morning. A month ago he said there was no truth in a Globe and Mail article that set the current ethical scandal in motion. Now he admits there was a whole lot of truth in it. The current narrative is deflecting responsibility. The entire SNC-Lavalin mess is, he thinks, someone else’s fault. Mostly Jody Wilson-Raybould’s.

I was flabbergasted to hear him say he was unaware of the deteriorating level of trust between the former Attorney General and his former principal secretary. Unbelievable. Even if neither of them came out and said so, there are always signals to be read. There are always indications that something is going wrong. If he didn’t see it, he didn’t want to. Or he’s not as good at his job as he thinks he is.

Whatever the reason, it is a poor defense for a prime minister to say it’s not my fault because I didn’t realize it was happening.

When I look at these guys, I realize that I’ve met them all before. I know them. I used to go to meetings with them. Maybe not them in themselves, but them in others. When I worked in Toronto at the Workers Health and Safety Centre, I went to meetings with Ontario Ministry of Labour staff. And Workplace Safety and Insurance Board staff. And Ontario Federation of Labour executive board meetings. And CAW Canadian Council meetings.

The people who sat around those tables didn’t breathe the same rarified air as the big boys in the Prime Minister’s Office, or the Privy Council Office. I never got within spitting distance of that level of responsibility, but the people I knew and worked with shared some common characteristics as Trudeau, Butts, Wernick, and even Wilson-Raybould herself.

They didn’t like to lose. They didn’t like to take no for an answer. They always wanted to get their way. They weren’t all bad people. At least, most of them weren’t. There were some domineering arseholes in the bunch, but a lot knew how to compromise. A few even understood the concept of consensus decision making. But the higher they climbed on the ladder, the less flexible they became. Compromise meant giving in and that was a sign of weakness.

From watching Wernick and Butts testify at the Justice Committee hearings, I recognized them as being more quarrelsome and less forgiving versions of the mid-level staff I met with at the Ministry of Labour and the WSIB. Trudeau confirmed it yesterday. All three said repeatedly that the decision to grant a deferred prosecution agreement to the company can be made at any time right up until a court verdict is finalized. They felt they could keep badgering Wilson-Raybould until she came around to their way of seeing things. Their excuse? They were only trying to help. It sounds to me like they were mansplaining public policy to a woman who already understands it.

Although they stressed it was entirely her decision to make, they were not going to rest until she saw things their way. That’s what bullying is all about. It involves people using their power or authority to coerce, browbeat, and intimidate other people to change their behaviour. It is an unwillingness to recognize that no means no. Clearly this was happening. Now the bullies are brought to heel.

It is also clear that Wilson-Raybould is no push over. She has a mind of her own and it’s a strong one. Trudeau, Butts, and Wernick met their match when they met her. She has shown Canadians that the best way to stop a bully is to stand your ground and refuse to be intimidated.

Young girls across the country are still learning the dynamics of schoolyard social relationships. Jody Wilson-Raybould gave them a huge lesson for Women’s Day 2019. You should e-mail her a thank you note.

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