Privacy: is it only for the guilty?

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia this week that he could either support the Conservatives' new Internet snooping bill or "stand with the child pornographers.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia this week that he could either support the Conservatives’ new Internet snooping bill or “stand with the child pornographers.” In an instant, Conservative MP Larry Miller was swept from the front pages. Miller had his few days of fame by calling his opponents Hitler, always a crowd pleaser.

Miller’s Hitler remark, made in the heat of debate over the abolition of the Liberals’ gun registry, stole the limelight from Conservative Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, who expressed a desire to supply prisoners with enough rope to hang themselves, in order to cut back on prison expenses.

Boisvenu in turn had knocked Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver out of the headlines. Oliver, you may recall, lashed out at “environmental and other radical groups” who raised concerns about his pet Northern Gateway Pipeline. Is this the new Harper strategy, to upstage one buffoon with another, at a rate of one a week, so that the public gets sick of hearing about it and tunes out?

If so, it’s time for a rethink. Toews did his best to bluster his way through the howls of fury that greeted his remark, but there was no getting around the fact that he had stood up in Parliament and lumped all Canadians with concerns for their online privacy in with child pornographers. He even hilariously accused the CBC’s Evan Solomon of trying to “torque up the rhetoric.”

No doubt another Conservative party clown will come forward next week and make headlines with another stupid and offensive remark, but there are elements in the Toews story that might keep it from being swept from the public eye. For one thing, someone who took exception to Toews’ crack about child pornographers is “tweeting” excerpts from the minister’s divorce proceedings.

Opposition parliamentarians are taking the high road, and steering clear of “vikileaks,” as the tweeter is tagged. The NDP’s Charlie Angus told the press he’s “not interested” in Toews’ private life, and will focus on his public statements. But Angus is wrong if he thinks Toews’ divorce is a strictly private matter. The anonymous tweeter has not been random about these tidbits of information. Each relates to some aspect of the minister’s public life.

Toews is a classic “family values” politician. While speaking out against gay marriage, which he once compared to the black mass, he has extolled heterosexual marriage as “a sacrament” with a “unique social purpose that other relationships simply do not share” and “one of the cornerstones on which our society is built.” In his rural Manitoba riding, these remarks probably helped him to get elected.

When you build your political career on talk like that, it’s very much in the public interest that your constituents should know how you treated the cornerstone of society when you had the chance.

Toews’ messy 2008 divorce, in which he left his wife of 30 years for his much younger, pregnant lover, was already public knowledge. The tweets shade in a nasty picture of an underhanded schemer presenting himself as an upholder of Christian conservative values while abusing the institution of marriage he claims to revere.

As a follower of the Bible, Toews can’t be entirely surprised to find that as he has sown, so does he reap. His rants about the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, his stand against dead-beat dads, his attacks on those who disagree with him on Internet snooping, his commitment to fiscal restraint, all fall into question when measured against his actions.

If Toews is capable of learning, he’s had a week of teachable moments. He should have learned to be more careful who he annoys with his scurrilous attacks. He should be at least a little more tolerant of those who may practise something outside the strict norms of conservative Christian marriage. He should be examining his own use of the public purse and how it might be restrained in tough economic times. But most of all, he should by now be fully sensitized to the fact that, even when we haven’t broken the law, we all have an interest in protecting our privacy.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.