OTTAWA — A Toronto senator is urging members of Canada’s chamber of “sober second thought” to think twice before firing off “nasty and hurtful” comments on social media.
Independent Sen. Tony Dean said he’s noticed an uptick in aggressive online posts by senators and staff that could be interpreted as “harassment, intimidation, and bullying.”
“I’d like to see behaviour changed,” Dean told HuffPost Canada. He wants Senate staff and legal advisers to review the Senate’s internal policies and come up with an official definition for what kind of online posts are considered appropriate and inappropriate. “I’m not setting out to see anybody punished here,” he said.
I don’t think they reflect well on the Senate.Independent Sen. Tony Dean
Asked for specific examples of personal “intimidating attacks,” Dean’s office provided a folder of screengrabs — more than 30 tweets, all collected from the accounts of Conservative senators and their senior staff.
“I don’t think they reflect well on the Senate,” Dean said.
In one, a Conservative senator invites Canadians to tune into a livestream of a committee meeting to watch an Independent Alberta senator as she “sells out her province” during a vote on the government’s tanker ban bill. Others show senators accusing colleagues of “abusing” rules.
“If only these Trudeaupendents focused half as much on actual legislation as they do their own existence, the Senate would be more productive,” reads a tweet sent by a Conservative staffer.
“Senator Dean is one of the most partisan members of the Senate,” reads another from a vocal Conservative senator. “He is one of Justin Trudeau’s most effective defenders.”
Another sent from the account of the chief of staff to the Opposition leader in the Senate mocked the acronym for the group of Independent senators, saying “you can’t spell misguided without ISG.”
The tweets also show a pattern of Conservative senators’ labelling Independents as “Trudeau senators” — a partisan jab that Dean described as “petty.”
Senator calls some tweets ‘distasteful’
It’s been more than five years since Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau booted senators from his caucus. Since becoming prime minister, Trudeau has appointed 30 senators to the upper chamber — none are affiliated with parties. All except two are members of the Independent Senators Group (ISG).
There are 105 seats in the Senate and the ISG holds the majority with 59 members. Conservatives make up the second biggest caucus with 30 members, and Senate Liberals hold nine seats. Six senators are unaffiliated with any group, and one Quebec seat remains vacant.
A former head of the Ontario Public Service, Dean said he’s well aware the Senate is a partisan institution where partisan jabs are fair game.
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Taking “political pot shots” at another group or party is a “long-standing tradition and it’s protected by parliamentary privilege,” Dean said. “[Conservatives] are completely entitled to do that. That may be distasteful to us, to some of us.”
But it’s the attacks intended to “undermine that person’s credibility” or to “potentially damage their reputation outside of the Senate” that cross the line, he said.
Online behaviour that could be construed as a pattern of bullying and harassment is what he wants to bring attention to.
“That behaviour isn’t protected, shouldn’t be protected by parliamentary privilege.”
Mixed reactions for Dean’s call for review of social media rules
Conservatives have also called out Independents for words flung within, as former Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick once described, the “vomitorium of social media.”
During debate on June 6, for instance, Conservative Sen. Don Plett accused Independent Sen. Murray Sinclair of insulting him on Twitter by calling him misogynistic and antagonistic toward Indigenous Peoples.
That interaction got Independent Sen. Paula Simons involved, who called out Plett for retweeting a Twitter troll accusing her of taking payment for her vote on Bill C-48, the government’s bill proposing a ban on oil tanker traffic off the northern coast of British Columbia. Plett later apologized.
Dean made his pitch for a review of the Senate’s social media guidelines last week at a meeting of the standing committee on internal economy, budgets, and administration where it was received with mixed reactions.
He told senators that their freedom of expression and parliamentary privileges shouldn’t override a colleague’s right to “work in an environment that’s free of harassment and intimidation.”
Plett said he didn’t disagree with Dean’s suggestion but asked the chair of the committee to put the issue on next week’s agenda for a fulsome discussion before Senate resources are committed to a review.
His colleague, Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk, however, disagreed saying the Senate has no business in governing how partisan messages are written.
“We will govern our own communication. We will not be relying on the Senate to tell us how we communicate a political message,” he said.
Committee chair, Independent Sen. Sabi Marwah, told senators at the meeting that the discussion would continue later. He called it an issue “that needs addressing” but said the committee may not have time to get to it until after the election.
With files from The Canadian Press