Liberal MHA Jim Bennett was in the hot seat Thursday, after he was accused of threatening a government minister.
Government House leader Jerome Kennedy said on Feb. 3 Bennett called Advanced Education and Skills Minister Joan Burke’s constituency office and left an intimidating voicemail message.
Premier Kathy Dunderdale, speaking to reporters outside the House Thursday, called the voicemail “absolutely appalling” but Liberal House leader Yvonne Jones, coming to Bennett’s defence, was quick to say the government response was “orchestrated” to score political points.
Bennett called Burke’s office in early February because he was trying to get help for a constituent who needed transportation from the St. Barbe area to Corner Brook for chemotherapy treatment.
Frustrated that he wasn’t getting results from Burke’s staff, he left a message on a Friday saying if the issue wasn’t settled by Monday, he would call “Open Line,” and “there will be hell to pay.”
Bennett also said, “I will absolutely trash your minister and say what a bunch of idiots she’s got working in her department. You fix the problem and fix it today or there will be lots of trouble.”
Burke said she found the voicemail “unnerving” when she heard it.
“I was shocked. I was taken aback by the tone of the call,” she said.
In the House, Kennedy argued Bennett had breached Burke’s privilege as a member of the House of Assembly, or at least he was guilty of the lesser breach, contempt of the House.
But the parliamentary rules dictate that any issue like this must be brought to the attention of the Speaker of the House as soon as possible, and Jones was quick to point out that the incident happened back in February and, at the very least, the issue could have been brought up in a House session earlier this week.
Jones pointed out Thursday happened to be International Women’s Day.
“The government members opposite are actually exploiting this issue and exploiting International Women’s Day,” she said. “That is the lowest, lowest thing I have ever seen in my entire life.”
Kennedy said in cases like these, victims don’t always come forward right away.
“One of the myths that were debunked many years ago, Mr. Speaker, in terms of violence against women and reporting of everything from sexual abuse to spousal abuse was that people act immediately,” Kennedy said. “There are situations, Mr. Speaker, in which people do not know what to do.”
Both Kennedy and Dunderdale said they only heard about the call Wednesday afternoon, and brought it up as soon as they could.
“I don’t care if it’s Christmas Day. When I see harassment and intimidation, I’m going to name it. I’ve worked in anti-violence all of my life, and that kind of behaviour is unacceptable,” Dunderdale said. “It has to be named as soon as you become aware of it.”
Burke told reporters the reason she didn’t bring the issue up earlier is because of the effect the phone call had on her.
“When I reflect back, it’s because of the intimidation,” she said. “It set you back.”
Burke explained the voicemail issue came up in conversation Wednesday; when she brought it up, she didn’t expect it to snowball into an issue in the House.
“I had a conversation yesterday about the decorum in the House,” she said. “My comments were that the decorum in the House is no different than, sometimes, the way we’re being treated when we’re doing our work, and that conversation led into my example and that’s when I shared it.”
Kennedy, meanwhile, said when he first heard the voicemail recording, he considered going to the police.
Speaker Ross Wiseman is still considering whether this was, in fact, a breach of privilege or contempt, but in the meantime, Bennett offered an apology to the House.
Bennett told reporters that he probably went over the top with the voicemail, but he felt he had good reasons for doing what he did.
“I was pushing pretty hard for a vulnerable cancer patient who was one of my constituents,” he said.
If he had it to do over again, Bennett said he would probably choose his words better.
“I probably could have pushed a little less hard. At this point I’m relatively new at the job and I’m insistent on getting whatever results I can for my constituents, but within the rules,” he said. “I probably would have toned it down a little, but I would still not rest until the matter was resolved.”