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IN-DEPTH: Cathy Bennett calls for review of bullying, harassment

Liberal MHA and former cabinet minister Cathy Bennett.
Liberal MHA and former cabinet minister Cathy Bennett. - Ashley Fitzpatrick

‘The fifth example was me,’ former Finance minister says about anti-harassment speech

Virginia Waters MHA Cathy Bennett says she experienced harassment and bullying at the hands of fellow Liberal members of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, which contributed to her departure from cabinet in 2017.

In an interview with The Telegram Tuesday, Bennett spoke generally about being subjected to “bad behaviour” and “the tools of bullying” to a degree that made her opt not to remain Finance minister.

“Bad behaviour that is inconsistent to the values of a healthy workplace was something certainly that I saw and I experienced,” she said.

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Bennett would not get into any specific incidents, or name individuals.

She said her experience was not limited to any one, particular incident. She made general reference to disagreements that came outside of the context of ongoing policy debate, plus “isolation,” “mobbing” by other House members and the “bystander effect” — people not speaking up or getting involved based on both assumptions and a desire not to be caught up in the conflict.

Bennett said she was the fifth example she offered, when speaking to a private member’s bill on workplace sexual harassment in late March, asking for a review of specific language used in labour and occupational health and safety legislation.

The example was, as she read again: “She had refused to co-operate with his plans, so he made sure he gossiped about her, spread rumours about her and tried to ruin her reputation and her career. She silently persevered while struggling with the emotional abuse from the bully.”

Bennett said she wasn’t ready to talk about it publicly at the time she introduced her private member’s bill, but wanted to include it.

Supporting fellow representatives

Bennett said she has decided to be more public about her experiences now to both support Liberal MHA Sherry Gambin-Walsh and Progressive Conservative MHA Tracey Perry — both of whom have now told reporters they have experienced bullying and harassment at the hands of Liberal members.

Bennett said she also wanted to highlight the process set out for the ongoing investigations into those complaints — as described so far. She disapproves of what has been set out, and said she has communicated as much to both the premier and other members of the Liberal caucus.

“Workplace harassment and bullying is a very specialized area of employment and work culture and it requires people who are trained and experts and people who have credentials in that area to conduct an investigation that at the end of the day will be transparent and will be useful and helpful in moving forward from here,” she said.

"You get accountability when there’s transparency." — Cathy Bennett

The commissioner has the ability to bring in any resources required to complete his review — including experts in workplace harassment.

Bennett said the individual complaints need to be addressed, but there is also something beyond the specific complaints now brought forward to be addressed: a toxic workplace culture in Newfoundland and Labrador politics.

She said that requires a review process with, ultimately, a public report with public recommendations for change.

“You get accountability when there’s transparency,” she said.

“This is a serious, serious issue that impedes our ability to have a functioning democracy. I don’t think we can take it lightly and I don’t think it’s a report about a complaint. I think it’s a systemic issue and … it requires an expert look.”

Did the premier know?

Premier Dwight Ball has said he was not aware of any harassment and bullying within the Liberal caucus prior to the complaint filed last week by Gambin-Walsh.

“The premier’s response or what he knew, I’ll leave those questions to him to answer,” Bennett said, when asked if the premier was aware of her experiences.

She was again asked for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’: whether or not she communicated the reasons for her decision to leave cabinet to the premier.

“I certainly communicated to the premier that the reason — one of the reasons — I was leaving his cabinet was that I wasn’t supported,” she replied.

Bennett said she would not answer questions on what the premier should do, or should not do.

She did say any leader of an organization “has a responsibility to set tone” and assure anything not meeting that standard is not tolerated.

She was asked for further clarity when it was generally understood there is a problem, including when she became aware of both Gambin-Walsh’s and Perry’s concerns. She said it was for each individual to share their own story as part of the ongoing investigations.

“But that investigation really needs to happen with an overview that it’s not just singularly about the particular pinnacle situations that happened to (the complainants), but it’s also about the broader environment and systemic bullying that’s happening and harassment that’s happening,” she said.

As for whether or not the ongoing concerns are gender based in any way, Bennett said her experience — and through reading and discussion she has found — a tendency to internalize comments and interactions, and ultimately question your own competency.

She would not say the experience of bad behaviour in government was limited to female members of the House of Assembly.

“I think for my male colleagues, again, their experiences are theirs to tell,” she said.

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