Sexual harassment is not a “dead issue”

A recent candidates’ debate for the federal riding of Avalon revealed just how entrenched sexism is in our political institutions, and how old boys’ clubs do no credit to anyone.

Well, if there’s one thing that defines an election, it’s an old boys club.

Unfortunately, the boys don’t always need to be old. Nor do they need to be in the same club.

It’s a lesson rendered with dismal clarity by the ongoing race for the district of Avalon in the federal election.

The comments from Liberal candidate Ken McDonald during last Thursday’s district candidate debate on CBC Radio were tremendously disheartening.

“I’d like to see Avalon move on. The issue of the Scott Andrews, for me it’s a dead issue. It’s like you said, moving on. And that’s what I think everybody should do, move on.”

The issue, of course, is the allegations that Andrews sexually harassed a female MP.

Admittedly, Andrews—and the district—are at a disadvantage, because the results of the investigation into the allegations made against Andrews were never made public. This is the result of a lack of adequate policies around sexual harassment in the federal legislature, a problem which became clear earlier this year.

But the fact that we are still in the dark as to the results of this investigation does not mean that it should be a dead issue. On the contrary, sexual harassment and gender inequality are one of the most live issues in this country, and they are issues we need to be shining an ever more energetic light upon.

But another disturbing thing about the entire situation is the suggestion by McDonald that we ought to “move on” and consider it a “dead issue”.

What is this, some sort of gentlemanly code of honour, whereby sexual harassment allegations against a man are graciously dismissed and ignored by other men?

Is it any coincidence that this was only challenged by the women candidates at the debate? It has nothing to do with party lines (as McDonald and Andrews’ rival status makes clear), but rather with gender lines, and with a shocking disregard for an extremely serious issue by the Liberal and recently-Liberal male candidates of the district. Comments like this trivialize an extremely vital issue.

Sexual harassment, and the gender inequity it is a part of, is a problem. In fact, it is one of the defining problems facing our society, and our country. For candidates of any party to dismiss sexual harassment allegations as a “dead issue” is unacceptable in the extreme.

“Move on” to what, exactly? To a magical fantasy-land where sexual harassment doesn’t exist? To a land where male parliamentarians rule the roost, rendering sexual harassment allegations “dead”? Such a land exists — and it’s called history.

It’s not the issue, but this old-fashioned fantasy-land where sexual harassment allegations are brushed under the carpet, that needs to be well and truly “dead.”

It’s not the first time McDonald has made unfortunate comments that risk trivializing the issue of sexual harassment. After securing the Liberal nomination, he made comments in August also dismissing the issue.

“Whatever happened, happened” is an incredibly blasé way for a man to dismiss the issue, and it suggests a deeper disregard for the centrality of gendered and sexualized violence as an issue that needs to be tackled in our society.

 Sexual harassment is not a dead issue. And we are not going to move on—not until the plague of sexual harassment in this province and this country has been well and truly tackled by a government that acknowledges the scope of the problem, and has committed to concrete change to eradicate it.

We do not know what the truth of the allegations against Scott Andrews are, because the arcane rules of our disdainfully old-fashioned parliament do not allow us to, and because Scott Andrews will not tell us.

But what we can agree on is that it is equally unacceptable and inappropriate for Liberal candidate Ken McDonald—or anyone—to brush them off. At the very least, McDonald could use the opportunity afforded by questions about the matter to highlight the serious nature of sexual harassment and gender inequality and tell us what he and his party have committed to do about it.

But to brush it off, with commentary like “it’s a dead issue…move on,” is extremely unacceptable and deeply offensive.

Let’s say it loud and clear: sexual harassment is not a dead issue. And we are not going to move on—not until the plague of sexual harassment in this province and this country has been well and truly tackled by a government that acknowledges the scope of the problem, and has committed to concrete change to eradicate it.

The commitment of all three provincial party leaders in Newfoundland and Labrador to a debate on women’s issues is a positive step in this direction. It’s a laudable step, one that surpasses the standard of the federal election debates. Let’s hope it leads to some concrete commitments by all parties to tackle the scourge of sexual harassment and gendered inequity in this province.

But the federal election leaves us wanting. Not only has there been no all-party debate about women’s issues (the major parties, with the exception of the Conservatives, did partake in a Sept. 21 debate on the topic that was organized by Up For Debate, a coalition of women’s organizations in partnership with the Toronto Star and Le Devoir), but federal races like the one in Avalon leave us with a sense of open disgust at the apparent prevalence of old boys’ clubs among the candidature.

There is nothing noble in tossing aside the matter of sexual harassment allegations. One can acknowledge the disparity of known facts, while also acknowledging the serious and ongoing nature of the problem.

But don’t tell us it’s a dead issue. Because it’s not. And until every candidate—and every party—addresses the issue front and centre, we must not let a single one of them off the hook.

Because this is our country, and sexual harassment—and gender inequality more broadly—has no place in it.

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