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Judith Timson on politics

Two political meltdowns, only one excusable Add to ...

Two female politicians recently lost their tempers in public in a big way, and exhibited what others saw as extremely bad behaviour. Only one should be sent packing. Together, they are a pretty good lesson in what boundaries should never be crossed no matter how angry you are.

Helena Guergis, the Conservative MP (Simcoe-Grey) who is the minister of state for the status of women, apparently had a full-scale meltdown at the Charlottetown airport one night last month. According to several news reports on Feb. 19 (her birthday), Ms. Guergis became verbally abusive to staff during pre-boarding screening after she and an aide arrived late for a flight to Montreal.

She refused to remove her shoes, which set off the alarm as she walked through the metal detector. When Ms. Guergis was asked again to take off her shoes, she is alleged to have "slammed" her boots into the bin provided, and said: 'Happy fucking birthday to me. I guess I'm stuck in this hellhole."

And when an Air Canada employee told her that passengers are, after all, expected to be at the airport two hours before departure, Ms. Guergis is alleged to have shouted: "I don't need to be lectured about flight time by you. I've been down here working my ass off for you people."

Only when the story became public did Ms. Guergis apologize personally to airport employees for "speaking emotionally." She made it clear that no matter how hard she had been working, her behaviour was inappropriate and she should not have taken out her frustration on equally hard-working airport employees.

The Prime Minister's office said it was satisfied with her statement. Well, I'm not. If all the allegations are true, I still think she should resign or be fired.

On a different scale, Toronto city councillor Paula Fletcher raised eyebrows this week during a public meeting on the city budget by responding furiously to a heckler who suggested she should be fired: "Come on, run against me. Come on down, baby!" Later, she apologized, saying she had "lost it."

Ms. Fletcher was clearly over the top, but she was in a heated political forum, taking on a heckler, and her response was not contemptuous. In fact there was laughter after it. She was basically telling him to man up and run against her. That was fair game, although her voice did sound scary. Nevertheless, I accept her apology.

Ms. Guergis, on the other hand, was nowhere near a political arena when she vented her frustration, exhibited obstructive behaviour, used obscene language, was apparently abusive to both airport workers and her own aide, and showed contempt for the province she was in. If those are the facts, how can she stay in the cabinet?

Face it: If you or I had behaved in such a fashion, there's a very good chance we would not have been allowed to board our plane. The Liberals are, predictably, making political hay out of this, asking for an inquiry into her behaviour, wondering if it threatened airport security.

But that's not even the full issue. Ms. Guergis is a minister of the Crown, a representative of the people. To refuse to go through airport security in a proper fashion would be enough reason to fire her, considering the government she works for has been all about heightened airport security measures since December. But she also demonstrated horrible judgment and a shocking lack of verbal control.

In an age when strangers think nothing of shouting abusively at each other - one newspaper columnist even applauded Ms. Guergis for acting like a "normal human being" up against silly airport rules - the Harper government should take a stand that civility and decent behaviour matter.

A week or so ago, while picking up some tickets for a concert, I overheard a woman blasting a box-office employee because she hadn't been given the seats she'd asked for. I was interested, as a bystander, in how awful the woman was being - no attempt at manners, or even letting the box office explain the situation. Just on and on and on in a relentlessly, insistently rude tone of voice. In the end, of course, the customer got what she wanted. I wondered, though, whether she could have accomplished this without turning the situation into a total nightmare, not only for the box-office clerk but for everyone around her.

These three examples happen to be of women behaving badly. A young friend said to me, "What, you want to fire a cabinet minister because she had a freakin' hormonal imbalance?"

Of course not. I believe that when it comes to tantrums, men and women are equal-opportunity offenders.

Civility matters. It has to. Otherwise, in a rage-filled world, we'll all be living in a hellhole, right down there with Helena Guergis.

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