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IN-DEPTH: Harassment and bullying in Newfoundland and Labrador's House of Assembly — ‘It’s been there’

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Legislature weighing changes to try to ward off harm

The House of Assembly continues to weigh the subject of harassment and bullying, with ongoing investigations after complaints against some members.

The Commissioner for Legislative Standards is conducting the investigations.

However, the province’s elected leaders are considering not only current events, but more generally how the House operates, to decide what else might be put in place — if anything — to further deter bullying and harassing behaviour.

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There is already the legislated Code of Conduct all members swear to, and a procedure for review in place, involving the commissioner, Bruce Chaulk.

There have been public calls for something else.

The House has charged the Privileges and Elections Committee (with members from all parties) to develop a legislature-specific harassment policy. That would then be brought back to the floor of the House for consideration.

While that work is ongoing, the House of Assembly Management Commission (again, with members from all parties) is looking at whether any other steps are needed in the interim.

A serious concern

Linda Ross, president and CEO of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, has been part of the call for the government to move swiftly to develop and implement a new legislature-specific harassment policy.

Ross suggested to The Telegram the subject requires all of the attention it is being given, noting the issue is not new and she has personally witnessed bullying and harassing behaviour in the House of Assembly over the years.

“It’s been there. It’s just not had a light shone on it in the way this particular situation over the last couple of weeks has, and I think that there’s a whole variety of reasons for that, but I think it is the first time the broader public is aware,” she said.

With MHAs going public with personal complaints, drawing attention to the issue, Ross said it is causing people to talk more about the political environment, about partisanship and diversity, and about the potential for politicians to be belittled, demeaned and dismissed in their work, or to be in the opposite role.

She said harassment and bullying in politics is not gender-specific, but is a recognized issue in particular for women and minorities still striving for greater representation, and Newfoundland and Labrador is not unique in that respect.

Risk in the numbers

Earlier this year, as a snapshot, the Canadian Press surveyed female members of Parliament. Of 89 female MPs, 38 responded to the voluntary survey.

“Nearly 58 per cent of respondents said they had personally been the target of one or more forms of sexual misconduct while in office, including inappropriate or unwanted remarks, gestures or text messages of a sexual nature,” CP reported.

Three MPs said they had been victims of sexual assault. Four said they were subject to sexual harassment, defined as insistent and repeated sexual advances.

In February, a separate poll by the Angus Reid Institute, involving more than 2,000 adults in Canada, found roughly half of the women surveyed reported they had been subjected to generally harassing behaviour in their working lives. One in four women said they had experienced “non-consensual touching,” also known as sexual assault.

Three-quarters of the women who said they experienced harassment or assault did not report it.

“Only about one-in-ten of those who were sexually harassed or assaulted say they reported the incident and got a satisfactory resolution. The rest either found their employer was dismissive, or did not see any concrete action taken,” the report stated.

Ross is part of the call for a policy applicable to the provincial legislature as a workplace, for any cases not yet addressed, but also encourages people to come forward.

She said the code of conduct governing members is “so broad, so vague” in how it relates to even basic bullying and harassment that it’s ultimately ineffective. She said the legislature needs a policy with more specifics.

“For us as the public, you have to have confidence that there is a mechanism whereby the people we elect to go in there are going to have that recourse and that, frankly, what we’re going to have is respectful behaviour,” Ross said.

The new policy applying to the public service, brought in by the Liberal government, doesn’t cover the House of Assembly. The Liberals don’t have the authority to unilaterally include the House in that.

In the news

Harassment and bullying behaviour have come up regularly as topics on Confederation Hill, to the point where they’ve entered the daily news cycle.

Look back 20 years, when then-St. John’s mayor Andy Wells accused then-municipal affairs minister Art Reid of making inappropriate comments about a woman, a well-known public figure. Reid denied making the comments, but later offered his resignation to then-premier Brian Tobin. Tobin condemned the delay in the comments being brought forward, and the media for their related reports.

“I don’t see any champions in this at all,” said Joyce Hancock, then-president of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, speaking about the situation at the time. “All I see are people playing out politics and it makes women like me wonder (at) the way we do politics here, meaning that sexism isn’t an issue to be addressed until it’s politically expedient.”

To look more recently, in 2012, Liberal MHA Jim Bennett was accused of threatening then-advanced education and skills minister Joan Burke. Then-government house leader Jerome Kennedy said Bennett called Burke’s constituency office and left a threatening voicemail message. Then-premier Kathy Dunderdale called the message “absolutely appalling.”

As The Telegram reported, Bennett said in his message, “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.”

Bennett offered an apology in the House and said he would have toned the message down if he had the opportunity to do it all again.

In 2014, MHA Dale Kirby accused then-education minister Clyde Jackman of bullying and acting in a disrespectful manner toward a schools advocate in the Confederation Building lobby.

The advocate — Nathan Whalen, president of the Federation of School Councils — described the incident to The Telegram as a case of “intimidation or power tactics, really,” and accused Jackman of being disrespectful on multiple occasions. Then-premier Tom Marshall committed the party to an investigation, even as Jackman and Whalen met again to settle things.

Why some current MHAs have made reference to the current situation being “new” speaks to this assembly, but also to formalized complaints being put to the commissioner for legislative standards.

The Telegram will have more in Friday’s edition.

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