The NDP is threatening to bring identity theft charges against anonymous senders of e-mails and press releases attacking Jack Layton. It might have been smarter to let this embarrassing ruse die. The internal brush fire the controversy has sparked is in danger of spreading.
A fake letter sent via e-mail to media across the country, including NOW, calling for Jack Layton's resignation and signed by Abitibi-Témiscamingue NDP riding association president Jennifer Bernier. What's really pissing party officials off is the fact that some unscrupulous person, or persons, has been using the Bernier e-mail to elicit comments from NDP party members, and then including the more unflattering remarks in press releases to the media.
The party line
Bernier never wrote the letter. She couldn't have, the party says, because the letter was written in English and Bernier is unilingual francophone. Bernier has since been quoted in an NDP press release saying she's "proud to have a leader such as Jack Layton."
But what of those quotes in press releases criticizing the party and Jack Layton? The NDP says the quotes were "falsely attributed" to party faithful.
The real deal
Not so. We contacted the nine party members quoted in two press releases. Of the seven we spoke to, only one, Nickel Belt riding association president Richard Paquette, took issue with the comments attributed to him, which he says were taken out of context. Five of the remaining six were more dismayed that their comments had been made public; they thought they were responding to an internal party e-mail. One NDP member, Baquie Ghazi from Toronto Centre-Rosedale, says he explicitly gave those behind the press releases permission to make his comments criticizing Layton's lukewarm Afghanistan stance public.
The curious thing
That the NDP is freaked at all. The party has announced with some fanfare that it has hired lawyers to look into squeezing Yahoo and Google for the identity of the person or persons who registered the e-mail addresses under which the fake Bernier letter and press releases have been sent out.
The party says it will be pursuing identity theft charges against the culprit or culprits, but privacy considerations and past experience tell us the NDP is unlikely to convince Internet service providers to make the info public.
The curious thing, part II
How tightly managed this whole affair has been by PR people in the leader's office. NOW's request to speak to Bernier directly (she did not respond to NOW's e-mail requests for comment in French) was referred to Layton's senior press secretary, Karl Bélanger - again, party higher-ups say, because Bernier does not speak English.
But as of this week, Bernier has yet to do any media interviews, including for her local French-language paper.
What's the NDP afraid of?
The obvious answer is "anything that makes Layton look ineffectual as a leader in the run-up to a federal election." But is anxiety among the rank and file more deep-seated than we think? The NDP's failure to run with the environment issue (the Greens and Liberal leader Stéphane Dion have grabbed hold of that one), not to mention its relegation of Afghanistan to the back burner, seems to have the grassroots griping more than usual. This is the same Jack Layton who earned a 90-plus-per-cent approval rating from the rank and file at the party's convention back in October, isn't it?