In another era, Kathleen Wynne and Tim Hudak would be duelling with pistols.
Happily, our gun laws have been updated. Now, Ontario’s premier and the opposition leader are supposed to work it out in the legislature.
Their desks are two swords’ lengths apart to prevent bodily injury. Inside the chamber, they are exempted from the laws of libel, which allows them to give as good (or bad) as they get.
Despite those safeguards — gun laws, swords’ lengths and libel shields — the rival leaders of Ontario’s two main political parties are at each others’ throats over the gas plants scandal.
The Liberal premier declares, in so many words: J’accuse.
The Tory leader’s defiance sounds like: Sue me.
Wynne accuses Hudak of defaming her with a reckless disregard for reality. By making wild allegations outside the chamber (unprotected from libel laws), the Tory leader and his party have crossed a line.
Hudak accuses the premier of trying to muzzle him with a reckless disregard for free speech. With her threats to sue him over those accusations (culminating with a formal notice of libel Friday night), Wynne has also crossed a line.
Whether those lines are legal or political will be determined in the court of public opinion ahead of any court of law. But the strategies on both sides have been legally risky and politically puzzling.
How can Wynne slap a lawsuit on the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, whose job description requires him to oppose her? Why muzzle him for declaring at a news conference what he could supposedly say with impunity just a few paces away in the privileged confines of the chamber?
Counter-intuitively, it turns out that Hudak has been much more restrained inside the legislature than out. Contrary to public perceptions, you cannot say anything you want in the chamber: The Speaker would almost certainly order Hudak to withdraw, if not apologize, for any unproven allegations of criminality against a supposedly “honourable member.”
Hence Hudak’s preference for slagging Wynne outside the chamber, where the Speaker cannot silence him. Only a judge can. Even if Hudak is libelling Wynne, he can safely assume that a judge and jury would bend over backwards to give an opposition leader the benefit of the doubt — however dubious his declarations and intentions.
It seems legal strategy may be taking a back seat to political hardball on both sides.
Hudak has been hurling allegations at Wynne ever since the release of an OPP document (not tested or proven in court) detailing an alleged cover up in the final days of Dalton McGuinty’s premiership. But as the OPP reconfirmed last week, Wynne herself is not under investigation.
Hence Wynne’s legal counterattack. Her lawyer’s letter demands a retraction and apology from Hudak, but her primary objective is to get the Tories to stop spouting their libel — before, during and after an election that could come this spring.
It’s a form of political libel chill against the Tories, to be sure. But entirely self-inflicted.
The Liberal plan may slowly be working. Despite Hudak’s bravado about not acquiescing to pressure, in recent days he has been executing a tactical retreat that amounts to a truce in their war of words — whether for fear of legal entanglements, or after reading the negative reviews in most media outlets.
At his biggest fundraising speech of the year, to a blue chip audience that raised $2.7 million for the Progressive Conservatives, Hudak was strangely silent on the gas-plant scandals. Perhaps he recognized that donors in the audience would be unimpressed by a party leader willing to squander hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend foolish libels.
It could take two very expensive years for a libel case to get to trial. What if an expected spring election never materializes — and his legal bills start piling up through the summer and fall, draining the Tory war chest? Ever since Friday’s libel notice, Hudak has steered clear of his most provocative accusations of criminality.
If he has seen the error of his ways — overreaching with over-the-top allegations — that doesn’t mean the Tory leader has to play softball going forward. There is no shortage of material he can use to denigrate the Liberal brand for any excesses, erasures and deletions in the McGuinty era.
But in this increasingly bitter battle of wills between two political rivals, Hudak has been his own worst enemy, allowing his hyperbole to shift the focus from Liberal integrity to Tory credibility.