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Senators Meredith, Beyak textbook examples of communications gone wrong: Powers

By Tim Powers      

If Conrad Black is practically the only one who will man the barricades on their behalf, they should just wave the surrender flag now and do us all a favour.

Independent Senator Don Meredith and Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak were both taking heat last week for perceived misdeeds. Their responses dug them deeper into a hole, argues Tim Powers. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia, and photo courtesy of the Senate of Canada
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OTTAWA—For a second week in a row, my focus is going to be on the Senate. Not for some of the good work they have done recently on challenging bills that have come from the House of Commons or initiating reform to end genetic discrimination. No, instead it is to look at two bad apples whose lame apologies and distorted attempts at blame cause nausea.

If you guessed the attention was on Don Meredith and Lynn Beyak, you’d be right. Meredith’s mess has been well explored, as the Senate’s ethics watchdog found the Ontario Senator breached the institution’s ethics code by engaging in a sexual relationship with a young woman that started when she was a teenager. Perhaps this week or next, his colleagues will be able to boot him from the Senate. We’ll see. Then they can go about modernizing the Senate’s human resource policy.

Beyak found herself in hot water when she spoke in the Senate of the “well-intentioned” religious teachers who were overshadowed by negative reports documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on residential schools for indigenous peoples. Miles and miles of historical research make it hard to argue that there was anything “well-intentioned” about residential schools. Beyak has been encouraged to step down from the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples Committee for that tone-deaf comment; but as of yet, no movement.

Meredith and Beyak might take heart that Conrad Black has taken to defending them against a push for expulsion. The headline of a column he wrote last week was, “Pull yourselves together, Senators—Don Meredith and Lynn Beyak don’t deserve to be kicked out.” Having such a credible source on appropriate behaviour may in fact push their peers over the edge.

What was really irksome about Meredith and Beyak’s behaviour last week was their respective lack of contrition and desire to distort what each of them did. In Meredith’s case, while he did apologize and spoke about a moral lapse in judgment, he went on to say he was a victim of racism in relation to the coverage of his misdeeds.

Any individual of whatever race or creed would be experiencing the same intense criticism Meredith is had they done the same thing.

Beyak put out a statement for which Columbo would be needed to find an apology. The closest she came to saying sorry was when she noted halfway through her ramble that “one can never excuse or minimize the suffering that victims have experienced.” She claimed that she has indigenous people among her colleagues, advisers, and friends—as if that somehow excuses her asinine remark. In a separate press release, she blames her trouble on fake news and exaggeration.

While the gravity of actions varies between Meredith and Beyak, certainly the pathetic way they have responded does not. Sadly, rather than actually own up to anything that they have done, like legions of other politicians, they slither into a mucky place and throw out their own mud. It is entirely disheartening and it is generally bad communications strategy.

By behaving in the way they have in responding to the accusations against them, they sound defensive and come across as guilty. Humans have a tremendous capacity to forgive. And depending on the error made, respect is often shown to someone who acknowledges a mistake. Beyak could be a benefactor of that sentiment if she had chosen a straight-up apology. Instead, she comes across as some sort of kooky conspiracy theorist and denier.

Public officials who clearly make grievous errors ought to think twice before they come out swinging and use blame as a shield. Never mind all the energy wasted trying to change the story arc when it’s not going to move. If Conrad Black is practically the only one who will man the barricades on your behalf, just wave the surrender flag now and do us all a favour.

Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.

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