Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/9/2014 (1019 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The collision of politics and social media often produces explosive results. As a case in point, consider the recent travails of a 20-something Winnipegger named Spencer Fernando.
Fernando was, until quite recently, employed by the Progressive Conservative caucus at the Manitoba legislature. He was also seeking a Tory nomination in the provincial riding of Fort-Garry Riverview.
Fernando is also an avid user of social media. On Aug. 26, Fernando wrote a thoughtful blog post entitled, "Why I support a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women."
"There may be some who worry that a public inquiry will turn up things that cast a negative light on our history as a nation," Fernando wrote. "That may be true. But facing the truth will not weaken us, it will strengthen us, both now and in the long run. It takes true courage and strength to face our past in an open and honest way."
All things considered, Fernando's post seems pretty reasonable. Not reasonable enough, it seems, for his employers at the PC party. Shortly after posting, Fernando was fired.
The decision, sources said, was made by James White, chief of staff to Leader Brian Pallister, who objected to a political staffer posting on a matter of policy. Both White and Pallister refused to comment on the firing, explaining the party never talks publicly about internal personnel matters.
Fernando as well declined to get into the details, except to say that he's not taking the matter "personally."
"I think this is a story that reflects the times we live in and the impact of social media," Fernando said.
Indeed. Although social media can be a tool for engaging voters and mobilizing support, others realize it can, when mishandled, blow up in the face of politicians and their staff.
Our right to free expression not withstanding, party leaders have a reasonable expectation the people who toil for them in political roles maintain a certain loyalty and discretion.
It is not unusual, for example, for political staff to be required to hold a membership in the party for which they are working. There is also an expectation members of a political team do not use social media to undermine or criticize the people they work for.
Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wielded similar control over his party this past June when he said all current and future Liberal MPs must support a women's right to choose in any debate or vote on abortion rights. Trudeau did not go as far as to ban current and future caucus members from expressing an opinion contrary to this policy; only that any vote would no longer be treated as a matter of conscience.
Should Pallister and the PC Party of Manitoba have a similar expectation in this matter? Hard to say.
We do know ever since Prime Minister Stephen Harper uttered his now infamous "it's not a sociological problem" comment, this has been a real hand grenade. Pallister, a former MP, is no doubt aware the federal Tories are feeling more than a little roughed up as a growing constituency of critics hammer away at the prime minister and his government for a comment many believe was insensitive and dismissive.
However, firing a young staffer for offering heartfelt support for an inquiry seems to be pretty immature. Particularly since Pallister has done everything he can to avoid taking a position on an inquiry.
A Tory spokesman said the party was still studying the issue. "A national inquiry on murdered and missing aboriginal women, roundtable or otherwise that is focused on meaningful action is a matter that deserves further consideration and discussion, precisely because it is such an important topic. We encourage anyone who is passionate about this issue to engage with our party so that our policy position is informed by the people of Manitoba."
So, it was impossible for Fernando to be out of step with Tory policy because the Tories don't have a policy or position yet. It would not be a stretch to say, however, that Fernando's firing is a strong indication that Pallister may have already made up his mind on the issue.
Why all the duck and run? The call for an inquiry is not a winner for Pallister. Support an inquiry, and you run the risk of angering your mostly rural base. Reject an inquiry, and there is a possibility you will lose ground in the city, where you desperately need seats.
It's hard to believe Pallister would have been able to avoid taking a position indefinitely, given the national attention this issue is getting. However, he might have been spared a bit longer if his chief of staff hadn't punished a staffer over an innocuous blog post.
For now, Pallister and his staff have realized there are many lessons to be learned about the collision of politics and social media. And most of them are very hard indeed.