Les Leyne: Faced with tough choice, Wilkinson makes the wrong call

You’re a leader and suddenly one of your team members veers off track in a public space into a wildly-inappropriate anecdote that violates 21st century political norms about gender, sexuality and good taste.

You’ve got a period of seconds to decide what to do.

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Do you intervene to shut it down and limit the damage, embarrassing one of your loyal followers and stepping on the moment?

Or do you sit there mute, let it pass and hope no one ever speaks of it again?

Assuming Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson even realized that he had a major decision to make, he chose to be mute.

In the perfect incandescent light of hindsight, it was the profoundly wrong call. Now he and his struggling team are going to pay a price.

The phrase cringe-worthy was invented for moments like this.

Liberal candidate Jane Thornthwaite’s lurid misrepresentation of interactions between her former colleague Ralph Sultan and New Democrat Bowinn Ma leaves some people shaking their heads.

One explanation is that she was trying too hard for a laugh.

Thornthwaite was one of several Liberals appearing on a Zoom call a few weeks ago to roast Sultan on his retirement.

Someone was bothered by the tone and relayed it podcaster Mo Amir over the holiday. It turns out a lot of others are bothered too.

Even giving her a generous amount of comedic license, Thornthwaite’s bit was a ghastly failure. But it’s about more than how oblivious Thornthwaite was to the dangerous ground she was on.

It’s about how she took such a gratuitous, insulting swipe at an innocent bystander when she was supposed to be roasting her colleague. It’s about the ripples of laughter from the several Liberal politicians, including Wilkinson, as the moment worsened.

And it’s about the clumsy, belated scramble to make things right on Sunday as the bit rocketed into viral territory (300,000 views and counting).

Thornthwaite’s bit involved her spotting Sultan and Ma — both North Vancouver MLAs at the time — at a public event.

“Bowinn is, you know, a very pretty lady and she knows that she’s got it,” Thornthwaite chuckled. “And she knows how to get Ralph going.”

Thornthwaite recounted how the two of them spent the whole event close together on a couch “very close together” with Ma “cuddling, cuddling, a little bit of cleavage there, and Ralph would be enthralled.”

Maybe in some world it is possible for a politician to poke fun in a public forum at an octogenarian male who has a friendly working relationship with a younger woman.

But not this one. Particularly when most of the demeaning tale wound up aimed at Ma.

The B.C. Liberals supposedly have a full campaign team working seven days a week ready for anything.

So what happened when it hit social media and their virtual campaign bus slid into the ditch?

Next to nothing.

Thornthwaite got a faint glimmer of what was coming her way and tried a deflection.

“I have huge respect for all women who push through glass ceilings. I’m one of them. So is Bowinn Ma. Ralph Sultan has the same respect and a soft spot for his fellow UBC engineer, and I made light of that at a roast. I have always and will always support more women in politics.”

Too little, too late.

After another 90 minutes of burgeoning disgust on social media, she tried again: “I wish to add this. The comments fell flat and were inappropriate. I unreservedly apologize… I commit to doing better.”

Too little, too late, again. News cycles are measured in nano-seconds now.

The damage control team was busy cooking turkey without noticing they had one running wild in their midst.

Ma responded thoughtfully. She said she was no stranger to casual sexism and has found herself making choices to avoid having sexist interpretations read into her interactions.

More specifically, “Like deliberately speaking closely with an elder who is very hard of hearing.”

Ma said it was a deeply uncomfortable characterization of her effort to extend kindness across partisan lines.

As for Wilkinson and the rest, the only mitigation is the fact that it’s a very difficult decision to step up and object.

NDP Leader John Horgan said he “hopes” he would have done the right thing in those circumstances.

Everyone asking themselves the question would answer that way, myself included.

Our hopes will be strengthened with this searing lesson in how much damage can come from doing the wrong thing.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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