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A modern harassment policy for the House of Assembly could help change the political culture of this province

in Featured/Opinion by

The provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador is moving to establish a new harassment policy to apply specifically to elected officials within the House of Assembly—for the fall of this year.

This policy comes on the heels of three accusations of harassment against two cabinet ministers. Both Eddie Joyce and Dale Kirby have been removed from cabinet and caucus following harassment and bullying accusations. They remain on paid leave until an investigation has been conducted and a report is made. Both ministers had requested leave from the House for an unspecified amount of time and were approved with pay.

In the absence of a harassment policy specific to the provincial legislature, complaints are currently being directed to the Commissioner of Legislative Standards, Bruce Chaulk, who has stated he will be hiring an independent investigator to assess them (where he deems that an investigation is warranted).

Under the rules governing the Office of Legislative Standards, the Premier can also activate an investigation through the Commissioner of Legislative Standards, something that he has, in fact, done in the cases of Kirby and Joyce. Many questions have been raised about the rigour and independence of this process. Specifically, is the Office of Legislative Standards truly equipped to oversee investigations into workplace harassment and bullying, an area which is often far more complex than investigating financial misconduct?

Equal Voice, a national multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women to all levels of political office, recently undertook a pan-Canadian analysis of harassment policies specific to elected officials and political staff in legislatures across the country. Currently, there is a patchwork of individual policies, directives, or sections within Member Handbooks or a Code of Conduct, many of which do not address explicitly as to whether they cover Members or political staff. While some jurisdictions have gone through a formal process of addressing the issue of harassment by, against and between Members through the development and debate of formalized policies and processes, others have chosen to embed definitions or lists of appropriate versus inappropriate workplace behaviours into existing wider-reaching policies.

Given the unique and varied circumstance within the political apparatus in each legislature, it’s critical to have a harassment policy that is well suited to the distinct environment in which politicians serve, regardless of party or leader. This is especially true when the allegations of harassment and bullying are peer to peer, i.e. when the bullying and harassment is alleged to have been directed by one elected official against another, and sometimes, as is the case in the province, this has occurred within the same caucus. .

Because of the complex power and partisan dynamics in politics, Equal Voice has identified some fundamental questions to be addressed in the development of a harassment policy:

1. Who is protected by the policy? Does it include MHAs and their staff, in the House and their constituency offices? Are interns also protected from workplace harassment?

2. How is harassment defined? A good harassment policy should provide a clear definition of harassment, which may outline a list of behaviours that could be considered harassing.

3. Is it inclusive of the non-office work environment? Elected officials participate in lots of community events, travel for work and engage in online spaces. Are these locales addressed in the policy?

4. Is training mandated and how is it delivered? Mandatory, in-person training could help to improve understandings of which behaviours constitute harassment as well as provide clarity on the policy and processes for addressing complaints.

5. Is there an option for an independent investigator? In numerous policies, it is the party Whip who initially hears the complaint while other jurisdictions highlight the Clerk’s office or other non-partisan offices within legislatures as the first point of contact. In both cases they are often ill-equipped to investigate harassment complaints and may be viewed as partisan actors, discouraging complainants from coming forward. In addition, several existing policies outline mediation or informal resolution as a first step. It is Equal Voice’s recommendation that an independent, non-partisan, investigator be made available, and be made available as a first step or intervention where necessary.

6. Are there provisions for confidentiality? In most existing policies, Equal Voice has identified this to be the case and feels that it is critical to ensure the protection of the parties involved while the process is being undertaken.

7. Is the process for how the complaint will proceed clear? The process, including timelines and when they will be communicated with, should be clear to all parties involved.

8. How are the results of an investigation communicated? All parties involved should know with whom the results of the investigation will be shared and how they will be communicated.

9. Are there provisions for counselling and resources? Some complainants may not have support for accessing counselling services, interns for example. Will such supports be provided or referrals made to access resources?

10. Are there provisions for support for ongoing employment? Considerations for how to maintain ongoing employment while keeping complainants safe should be made, taking into account the varying power dynamics that exist between staff and elected officials, between elected officials and so forth.

The organization has offered its research and resources to the Members of the House of Assembly, including those who serve on the Committee on Privileges and Elections—and the Management Commission overseeing the Office of Legislative Standards. Both Committees will likely play a role in the potential development or review and implementation of whatever policies are adopted.

Currently, Members of the House of Assembly are governed by a Code of Conduct which oversees breaches of ethical behaviour. However, the legislation currently does not offer a clear and concise definition of harassment. A vague reference to relationships (“Relationships between Members and government employees should be professional and based upon mutual respect and should have regard to the duty of those employees to remain politically impartial when carrying out their duties”) between members can be interpreted in many different ways, making it difficult for MLAs to define, let alone anticipate, what the repercussions may be of specific behaviour.

That is why a clear and explicit definition of harassment and bullying is critical. Equal Voice suggests that such a definition be developed and encoded in policy that applies specifically to elected officials. This definition must be well-researched and grounded in the experiences of elected officials themselves.

The allegations of harassment and bullying within the House of Assembly are very unfortunate. At the same time, the province has a golden opportunity. If handled well, the House could be leaders in the adoption of one of the most modernized harassment policies specifically for political officials.

Further, the development of Newfoundland and Labrador’s policy could be a catalyst for a wholesale reflection on the political culture in the province generally, and what Newfoundlanders and Labradorians expect from their elected officials when it comes to promoting healthy, productive and constructive policy making.

Newfoundland and Labrador is not unique in confronting allegations of harassment and abuse in its legislature. Some provinces have no policies at all to govern the behavior between and among elected officials. Others are substandard and in desperate need of review. Federally, the policy governing behaviour between and among elected officials is in the process of being revised.

The reality is that most of Canada’s legislatures were conceived before women had the right to vote. Many of their day to day workings and traditions do not reflect a modern 21st century workplace. In this respect, the House of Assembly could leverage this moment to show bold and inclusive leadership. The alternative is that, whatever the outcome of the current investigations, there are no system-level changes and we get more of the same in the months and the years ahead.

Equal Voice is not naive to the highly partisan nature of political spaces. Political maneuvers can be cruel, even punitive. MHAs are expected to demonstrate unwavering loyalty to the party leader and caucus colleagues. But that is not an excuse for bullying and harassment which may constitute psychological violence. Isolation, verbal abuse and other tactics designed to diminish and undermine MHAs’ capacity do their jobs on behalf of the people they are mandated to represent are unacceptable. The fact that a few brave women (and one man thus far) are speaking out and challenging these entrenched rules in politics is remarkable, indeed.

However, it also demonstrates the degree to which some MHAs believe they have been systemically prevented from serving as effective advocates for their Ministerial portfolios, critic areas and constituents.

While it is easy to dismiss these recent events as another sign that politics is as broken as ever, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians need to see this as a long overdue wake up call. Some of the conversations that have ensued suggest that, with concerted effort, it is possible to ‘do politics differently’, and the old rules need not apply.

Innovative approaches and candid discussion about how politicians work together within their own caucuses and across party lines in constructive and healthy ways are essential not just to the experience of MHAs serving right now, but to those watching on the sidelines and future generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

Consequently, anyone who cares about the well-being of rural and urban communities of Newfoundland and Labrador, regardless of their views on politics, would be wise to pay close attention and demand a robust debate in the weeks and months ahead.

Nancy Peckford is Executive Director of Equal Voice Canada. Gina Gill is Atlantic Regional Coordinator.

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