July 11, 2018 2:11 pm

COMMENTARY: Are we actually pretending ‘gropegate’ isn’t partisan on both sides?

There isn't much we can state definitively about what Justin Trudeau did at a music festival in B.C. 18 years ago. But discussion of the situation is the latest example of the eternal impact partisanship has on public debate, Matt Gurney says.

Chris Young/CP File

I make a point of trying not to base columns too much about little, micro-Twitter controversies, but I can’t resist today — it’s brief, I promise. An American journalist, Emily Peck, recently published a column about Brett Kavanaugh, the man just nominated by U.S. President Donald Trump to join America’s Supreme Court, replacing the retiring associate justice Anthony Kennedy.

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Peck warns readers that just because Kavanaugh seems to be a loving, affectionate and supportive father to young daughters doesn’t mean he’ll be a judge who looks after the best interests of women. “Playing up Kavanaugh as some kind of gentle, good dad seems to be a fairly transparent effort to sidestep [concerns about his voting record],” she writes. “To try to make this man less terrifying by reassuring women that he’s a nice daddy.”

READ MORE: Donald Trump names Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court justice nominee

That’s a conversation worth having. But it didn’t take long for Peck to find herself being bombarded with screen captures of an article she published last year — one with a nice big photo of former president Barack Obama and his smiling daughters. The older article makes the argument that having daughters … oooh, this is awkward … really does make men care more about women’s issues.

Peck (partially) acknowledged the irony (hypocrisy?) in a tweet, while also saying the articles aren’t mutually exclusive — she’s right about that, but they aren’t aren’t mutually exclusive, either. But no matter — this is just to remind us all, if any reminder is needed, that changing one’s position on an issue because of partisan political preferences isn’t anything new. It’s eternal.

And it’s something we’ve been seeing a lot of in Canada of late.

READ MORE: Trudeau says he ‘did not act inappropriately’ in latest comment on anonymous groping allegation

To my mind, there isn’t much we can state definitively about what the much-younger Justin Trudeau did or did not do at a music festival in B.C. 18 years ago. An encounter then led a local paper to write a scathing editorial, asserting that Trudeau had “handled” and implying he’d groped a female reporter, only to apologize when he realized she worked for a national newspaper, the National Post, as opposed to a small local rag (a term I use with sincere affection, in case that’s not clear). The prime minister is clinging to his latest set of talking points, and the woman at the centre of the allegations has no desire to speak to the media. Short of another allegation surfacing, that’s probably where we’ll stay.

But we can certainly note — as many effectively have, including Robyn Urback for the CBC, Andrew Coyne for the National Post and Rachel Giese for Chatelaine — that the prime minister’s team has botched their reaction to the resurfacing of these old allegations and that Trudeau has appeared exceptionally hypocritical in assigning himself a level of benefit-of-the-doubt he wouldn’t (and hasn’t) given others.

What’s been interesting to me, watching all of this from a comfortable remove while on a recent vacation, has been how quickly allegations of “Partisanship!” have flown around. If you’re someone who’s defending the prime minister, or at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until more facts are known, a chorus of voices will rise up and accuse you of being a Liberal shill or some which. On the other hand, if you’re demanding better answers and more transparency from the prime minister, the odds apparently are that you’re just a Conservative hack exploiting an unfortunate incident for political gain.

WATCH: Trudeau responds to statement from ex-reporter on groping allegation

Here’s the thing: there’s truth in all of that. And I shouldn’t even have to point it out. It’s an obvious truth, and one I’d hardly have thought needed saying. And yet here we are.

Of course Liberals and fans of the prime minister are inclined to cut him some slack. Of course Conservatives, or those who’ve simply never really liked Trudeau too much, are inclined to rake him over the coals a bit. Humans are intensely political animals — to the point of tribalism. I don’t mean to dumb-down a serious issue with the comparison, but it’s just like in sports. If a guy on your team trips an opposing player, it’s a hockey play — he was going for the puck, ref, come on! If a guy on the other team does it to your player, come on, that’s two in the box, for sure!

In sports as in politics, the difference is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Some, if not most, of the PM’s critics will be motivated by their personal beliefs about Trudeau and his party. Some, if not most, of the PM’s supporters will also be motivated by their personal beliefs about Trudeau and his party.

READ MORE: Robin Wright speaks out for first time about Kevin Spacey

It occurred to me when mulling this over that the #MeToo movement probably hit entertainment and journalism first and hardest for a reason. People are passionate about their movies and TV shows, and often addicted to their news. But it’s not part of their identity. How many people counted “fan of Kevin Spacey’s career” as key to their being? How many people could only get their news from Matt Lauer? The public was prepared to cast judgment on those men because, well, you can conclude they’re scumbags while still enjoying your DVD of The Usual Suspects and tuning in nightly to NBC News.

But politics and sports, both areas deemed ripe for #MeToo reckonings of their own, are different. I’ve met way more people who’ll readily identify as a Liberal or a Red Sox fanatic than anything else. There’s a much greater degree of resistance to admitting your “side” might be imperfect or vulnerable there. It’s part of your identity.

Or, it’s “partisan,” if you will.

No kidding. This probably isn’t great, but it’s a fact on the ground — and if we can’t overcome it, we can at least plan around it. Reasonable standards need to be established and then enforced no matter who’s in power or no matter how many goals a player puts in the net. It’s an achievable goal. All we need to do is figure out how to stop people from being tribal.

Huh. Maybe not so achievable, after all. And too bad — we’d all be better off if our long-overdue reckonings and collective awakenings weren’t quite so conditional on who’s looking bad today.

Matt Gurney is host of The Exchange with Matt Gurney on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.

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