The presumption of Innocence is for courtrooms, not politics

February 2, 2018

The political reckoning was quick. In the span of less than a week, allegations of sexual harassment and sexual impropriety destroyed the political futures of four separate men in politics.

Nova Scotia PC leader Jamie Baillie was forced out as party leader and later resigned his seat in the legislature after allegations of workplace sexual harassment. Liberal MP Kent Hehr, who somehow survived prior allegations of boorish comments, resigned from cabinet following tweets alleging inappropriate behaviour. (At the time of writing, Hehr remains in caucus, though an investigation is underway.) Ontario PC Party president Rick Dykstra resigned his post on Sunday after Maclean’s revealed he had been investigated for sexual assault of young staffer in 2014, when Dykstra was an MP.

And then there is Patrick Brown, the now-former leader of the Ontario PCs. Though the allegations against him don’t appear to be criminal, they are shockingly serious: Brown is alleged to have taken advantage of his position of power over very young women, plied them with alcohol and then made inappropriate sexual advances.

Shortly after the story broke, Brown held a disastrous press conference where he denied the allegations and then ran from the media. Hours later, he resigned from his position as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives.

It was a powerful week for the societally important #MeToo movement. But it seems that old ways of thinking die hard for some. Certain columnists wrote that what happened to Brown was wrong and that “every man in the world is now vulnerable.” Others suggested that Patrick Brown’s downfall was an affront to fairness. “What of the presumption of innocence?” they cried.

Let me let you in on a little secret: the presumption of innocence is a legal construct. Yes, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says that people are presumed innocent – if they have been charged with an offence.

You see, the presumption of innocence operates in our courts of law to protect people charged with crimes from the power of the state to deprive them of their liberty. It does not operate to immunize political leaders from scrutiny.