When PQ candidate Michelle Blanc was found to have used the N-word in a since-deleted tweet, I cringed. Here was someone who proudly referred to herself as a "social media expert" who had committed an unacceptable offense over a minor dispute with a Bell customer service agent.
Blanc, who is transgender, upset that the Bell employee had called her 'monsieur' over the phone because of her masculine voice, went on to say "you sound African, but I don't call you mon petit negre", or "my little negro."
Will the Parti Québécois keep Michelle Blanc with her racist comments, if so, it will make it obvious what they stand for. Exclusive: Controversial PQ candidate wrote 'mon petit negre' in deleted tweet https://t.co/2Qi7Y4BUvY— Will Prosper (@WillProsper) August 30, 2018
Though she later removed the evidence, the damage was done. She had exposed herself at best incapable of controlling her temper and lacking judgment, and at worst a racist or someone without qualms about using racist language over a misunderstanding. The incident soon escalated to a new level of bizarre offensiveness. Blanc raised the stakes, with no foundation whatsoever accusing philosophy professor and blogger Xavier Camus -- who had uncovered the social media blunder -- of pedophilia.
At this point, I was certain she would get the boot from the Parti Québécois. Not only had she become a liabilty for the PQ with her tweets, she had reacted to being exposed with immaturity and viciousness. And here comes the plot twist. Instead of expelling Blanc, PQ leader Jean-Francois Lisée leapt to her defence. Threatened with legal action for defamation by Camus, Blanc quickly apologized and retracted her accusation. She remains in the race and is now facing additional accusations of questionable online conduct. More on this later.
Although probably the most egregious, the Blanc controversy is not the only one to plague political parties in the current Quebec election and occupy prime media headline territory. While the campaign has been a passionless humdrum affair so far, with a large percentage of Quebec voters uninterested in or undecided about the Oct. 1 vote, one element has not been in short supply: political scandals.
It's nothing new in politics to see a party leader occasionally ambushed by embarrassing revelations about their candidates and having to justify or explain their conduct, stand by them or expel them. This Quebec electoral campaign, however, two parties, the right-of-centre federalist CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec), currently in the lead according to the latest polls, and the left-of-centre separatist PQ (Parti Québécois) have been particularly hit with scandals that have kept them in the headlines — for all the wrong reasons.
In the unforgiving arena of politics, every wrong move is scrutinized and used, and opponents and partisans have few qualms about exposing candidates’ past mistakes or social faux pas. Social media has upped the stakes and the opportunities for compromising mishaps, since digital trails are long and oh, so easy to follow.
As the Sept. 15 deadline for parties to present their full list of candidates loomed, candidate vetting may have been rushed and the necessary homework may not have been done. The result has been a wide range of political scandals in recent months, forcing political leaders to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to explain them away. Here are the major ones:
PQ: Islamophobia, the N-word, and drunk driving
Whether PQ leader Jean-François Lisée recognizes the term or not, the party has been particularly plagued by candidates who were later found to have uttered some seriously xenophobic and Islamophobic remarks. Muguette Paillé got the ball rolling back in May when it was revealed that she had engaged in some hateful online comments about Muslims on far-right, anti-immigrant sites, as well as some unsavoury comments about politicians she disliked. She was forced to resign.
More recently, another PQ candidate, Pierre Marcotte, was disqualified by the party and immediately renounced by party leader Jean-François Lisée, when it was revealed that he, too, had uttered anti-immigrant comments – with particular vitriol for Muslim immigrants, whom he described as a “menace.” “We have to ban this religion the way we ban pitbulls and sawed-off rifles," he was found to have commented on social media.
The lone PQ candidate mired in online controversy, yet still left standing, is Michelle Blanc. Philosophy professor and blogger Xavier Camus has been relentless and efficient at exposing xenophobic, far-right, and anti-immigrant comments in the public sphere and Blanc hasn't been his only "victim." She does, however, hold the distinction of being the only one to accuse him of pedophilia in retaliation.
Unlike Marcotte, Lisée has chosen to stand by Blanc, and gone to great lengths to publicly defend her, stating that she’s new to politics and that she sometimes loses her temper because she gets a disproportionate amount of hate thrown her way. I have no doubt at all that as a transgender woman, Blanc routinely deals with her fair share of transphobia, but I don’t think one needs that much political savvy and experience to know it’s absolutely unacceptable to use the N-word or that a baseless accusation of pedophilia is never the right course of action. Blanc is a live wire and a liability and I have a hard time understanding Lisèe’s loyalty in this case. While I don`t completely disagree with the PQ leader`s statement that “there needs to be room for human error in politics," there is a huge difference between an isolated, regrettable mistake and repeated public proof that someone lacks the composure and judgment to conduct themselves in a manner befitting an elected official.
Marking a change from anti-immigrant comments being responsible for the PQ losing candidates, Guy Leclair also recently withdrew from the race after a Radio-Canada investigation revealed that he had been arrested for impaired driving back in July. At the time he had refused to take a breathalyzer test and his car was impounded. He was officially charged with impaired driving on Sept. 5. As with Blanc, Lisée stood by Leclair, declaring that he deserved the presumption of innocence, but once he was officially charged, he had no choice but to accept his resignation.
Questionable loans, underage drinking, and a 'well-treated dwarf'
In sharp contrast, the CAQ scandals have surprisingly been less about misguided attempts at protecting one's identity -- even though the party has been persistently heavy on identity-driven policies and threats to expel immigrants after three years if they haven’t learned French (a threat that is neither feasible, nor legal as far as the Canadian Charter is concerned) -- and more about embarrassing money-related issues and some illegal underage drinking thrown in for good measure.
One week into the campaign, CAQ party president and candidate Stephane Le Bouyonnec resigned when it was revealed that he once led an online, Ontario-based firm called Techbanx, which profits from offering high-interest loans.
Éric Caire, the CAQ MNA for La Peltrie in Quebec City, was also put in the hot seat after confirming that he accepted a personal, $55,000 loan last year from a city mayor during his separation from his spouse so he could purchase a home. The ethics commissioner concluded it inappropriate, but since Caire paid the money back in June, he remains in the race.
Finally, Stéphane Laroche, the CAQ candidate for the riding of Saint-Jean, was forced to resign after revelations that as the owner of O’Bock pub he repeatedly allowed underage drinking in his establishment and also paid female employees less than male employees. “The lack of transparency and the lack of respect for pay equity have no place in the CAQ,” the party said in statement. When it comes to the latter transgression, perhaps Laroche was only following his own leader`s advice. In 2013, Legault, during a Twitter exchange with then La Presse columnist Vincent Marissal (now a QS candidate himself) made the unfortunate and highly sexist comment that "women attach less importance to salary than men do," an online statement that has occasionally been dredged up to embarrass him.
In all fairness, Legault has worked hard to shake off that paternalistic image he seems to cultivate so effortlessly at times. The CAQ is fielding 65 women and 60 men, which it claims is the highest percentage of women candidates ever attained by a Quebec political party. In sharp contrast, in 2014, the CAQ had the lowest percentage of women candidates among the main political parties, a measly 21 per cent.
The Laroche revelations also served up what is probably the strangest sentence ever uttered in Quebec politics. When it was revealed that Laroche’s club also hired a little person to host the Saint-Jean-Baptiste festivities in 2015 and 2016, essentially renaming the festivities Nain Jean-Baptiste (nain is a French word for dwarf), the party rallied around him. In response to the revelations, CAQ spokesperson Matheiu St-Amand rushed to defend Laroche by informing journalists that "the dwarf was well treated and was paid.” Who can argue with that kind of logic?
Social media a double-edged sword for political parties
In response to the Laroche revelations, Legault stated that he had no way of knowing about Laroche’s past and that it’s “impossible to fully vet all candidates.” But let’s be real for a minute: saying that you have no way of knowing is to deliberately ignore that there are, indeed, many ways of knowing. In a world where easily accessible and sophisticated software programs can scrape and search online data and unearth all kinds of material and past mishaps, and where philosophy professors are capable of digging up all sorts of online dirt solely on a part-time and voluntary basis, one can no longer make that statement in good faith.
By now, even the least savvy political spin doctors and party spokespeople should know to be wary of social media. Past Facebook and Twitter posts have taken down more than their share of candidates. You would think that major political parties would do a better job of vetting candidates for all the skeletons in their closets, online or otherwise.
Social media can enhance political campaigns and parties invest considerable sums in digital marketing to get their message across, raise funds and brand recognition, and hopefully motivate voters to get to the ballot box. But the ability to unearth all the dirt you didn’t see coming has completely changed politics – for the better and for the worse.
How in this day and age, are parties unable to do a basic Google search about the people representing them and inevitably affecting the outcome? Basic screening and some social media digging could avoid major embarrassments and compromises to the party brand. Controversies unearthed by social media do more than just temporarily embarrass party leaders. Repeated controversies can have serious and long-lasting effects on the trust voters place on a party and a leaders’ overall sense of judgment, ethics, and the choices they ultimately make in their candidates.
Political campaigns are ultimately brand platforms and when your candidates veer off from the main message or make their unfortunate comments the main story, not only does your message get compromised, you are afforded less time to share that message because you’re now spending all your time fielding reporters’ questions about the controversy. It’s a losing game for political parties no matter how swiftly and professionally a scandal is handled.
Case in point: the Michelle Blanc controversy has proven to have legs, since the candidate, who seems to suffer from permanent foot-in-mouth disease, has managed to utter more than her share of questionable statements and tasteless jokes over the years. Weeks later, and with only weeks to go before votes are cast, Lisée continues to field questions about her and has been repeatedly forced to respond to comments made by his political opponents who, of course, have seized the golden opportunity to keep mentioning her. B’nai Brith Canada recently asked for Blanc's removal as a candidate over perceived anti-Semitic comments she once made. In a 2011 tweet she commented that she “forgot to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday.” Once again, Lisée is standing by her, referring to the tweet as "dark humour" and calls the request "intimidation." While most voters will probably also see questionable attempts at humour where B'nai Brith sees anti-Semitism, one can hardly call their request "intimidation."
One thing is certain, problem candidates like Blanc who aren't properly vetted can often be more trouble than they are worth. Case in point, on the day that Lisée was unveiling the PQ`s environnmental policy and should have been fielding questions about that, he was obligated to, once again, answer media questions regarding Blanc. He wasted valuable campaign time defending his problematic candidate and her social media blunders.
There may come a time when voters won`t see loyalty but an inability to make hard decisions to get rid of the albatross around your neck. Damage done to a party's credibility — however fleeting — can evolve from a minor distraction to a full-blown crisis when back-to-back scandals end up irreparably linking the party in many voters' minds to a lot of bad decisions. If votes are what you're after, that`s never a winning strategy.
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