Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tactical error for Hickey and Williams

Transportation Minister John Hickey’s decision to sue Roger Grimes – and the Premier’s willingness to pay for it with our tax dollars – is a major tactical blunder.

With the so-called “vindication” of Hickey, one would expect Williams to leave this mess behind and get on with the business of running government. Instead, he is getting sidetracked into a legal battle that will keep this issue in the media for months to come.

According to Simon Lono (http://offalnews.blogspot.com/), the premier warned that other commentators might be the subject of future lawsuits, including Ed Hollett (http://www.bondpapers.blogspot.com/) and Sue Kelland Dyer (http://nlpost.blogspot.com/). In fact, it sounded to me like Williams was firing a warning shot over the head of anyone with the temerity to criticize his government.

“I’ll tell anybody out there, if they are going to take down the reputation of people who are in public life, then they will have to basically answer for it… and they will have to answer for it in court,” Williams said in a media scrum.

Should you be intimidated by this? Should the open lines fall silent? Should we stop expressing outrage at the scandals coming out of Confederation Building? Absolutely not.

First of all, you can never, ever be sued for telling the truth – no matter how unpleasant or inconvenient the truth may be. Secondly, defamation law in Canada entitles each of us to make “fair comment” on issues of the day. Lloyd Duhaime of Duhaime Law in Vancouver sums it up this way:

“The author of the remarks may even go so far as to presume motives on the part of the person who's actions are being criticized provided only that the imputation of motives is reasonable under the circumstances. The rule of thumb is that the fair comment must reflect an honestly held opinion based on proven fact and not motivated by malice.”

(To read more on this, click: http://www.duhaime.org/Tort/ca-defam.aspx)

The proven fact in this case is the 20 claims that were double billed by John Hickey; Grimes might reasonably argue that he was speculating on the proven facts.

Finally, the courts generally give more leeway to “fair comment” when the subject of derogatory remarks is a public figure. And that’s fair enough. When you enter public life, you invite such scrutiny and criticism. It’s part of the game.

Perhaps there was no criminal intent on John Hickey’s behalf. But the fact is, he did double bill according to the Auditor General’s report. This suit will inevitably drag out the embarrassing detail of how that happened, and there are going to be some tough questions raised about Hickey’s competence. It’s a can of worms that can only grow more putrid with the passage of time.

Williams and Hickey should let the matter drop and move on.

UPDATE: I hear on the news that Hickey is now going to pay his own legal bills, if the case proceeds. Which begs the question: did they not anticipate that the public, already angry from MHA spending scandals, would be unhappy about paying for Hickey's lawsuit? This is truly remarkable.

No comments: