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ontarionewswatch.com NEWSROOM

The ONW Salon:  Will the new bill on sexual harassment solve the problem in politics?

A federal Liberal cabinet minister, Ontario PC Party leader, and a former MP and provincial Progressive Conservative Party President have all been forced to resign their posts due to allegations of sexual impropriety. Is Bill C-65 the fix needed to solve the problem of sexual harassment in politics?  Amanda Alvaro, Will Stewart and Tom Parkin weigh in.

 

Tom Parkin:

I was pleased that on Monday, the NDP’s new House Leader, Ruth Ellen Brosseau, got the support of the other House Leaders to fast-track C-65, which will add harassment to federal health and safety law and include staff for MPs and Senators.

The federal government is behind on this. Ontario, for example, added harassment to the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 2009 (though it doesn’t apply to Queens Park, as C-65 will).

The political opposition and the labour movement need to keep attention on this topic to ensure that the regulations address investigation and prevention. In Ontario, for example, the law set out an investigation requirement and allowed the cabinet to set regulations about the prevention of harassment—but unfortunately, the government hasn’t done that. We can’t let this chance go by.

Yes, there needs to be investigation and response. But our goal should be to prevention.

There has been work done on the risk factors for workplace harassment. An excellent study was done by the U.S. Equal Employment Commission, which distilled 12 risk factors. These factors include power imbalances (“star” employees), young workers, drinking alcohol, non-diverse workforces, isolated workplaces—when you review the list, it makes sense.

And the goal for workplaces—whether it’s the Commons, a bank or a factory—is to identify whether they have these risk factors in their workplace (and in politics, almost all 12 exist) and address them. Addressing risk factors, in addition to setting out an investigation process, should be required by regulations.

If employers can eliminate the risk factor—for example, by establishing a diverse workforce—that’s a great solution. In other situations, the factor can’t be eliminated but can be reduced. For example, in the NDP caucus, the power imbalance between MPs and staffers is narrowed by voluntarily recognizing a staff union. I can tell you absolutely that has worked. Every workplace will address the risk factors in their own way.

There is the potential of C-65 leading to Canada’s most preventative and proactive regulations yet that get workplaces addressing the risk factors of harassment. Of course, it doesn’t mean workplace harassment will end, but a lot of good will be done.

 

Will Stewart:

We have chatted about this issue a few times before here on ONW, but like all items in politics, time does have a way of changing things.

I think we are now on the right path. All parties are looking at their own behaviour, all parties are considering both the right thing to do, but then also how to address the rumours that exist about many elected officials and staff in a proactive way.

Both are important, but we simply must put the women, the victims, first in our minds. It is certainly a time where allegations are dealt with swiftly and properly as it should be. The main exception is where the Conservatives seem to have turned a blind eye in the past to one of their own in Ottawa. To be clear, as a Conservative, that is not okay. In fact, it is embarrassing to me as a party member.

Both the Liberals and the Conservatives have had their difficulties this week. And while many of us know and like people in parties across partisan lines (and I think we all like each other on here), I don't think you will see people coming to the rescue of those accused of this terrible behaviour.

The court of public opinion is very clear on this: this type of behaviour towards anyone is simply not acceptable in public life, or even private life. We saw how alone Patrick Brown looked in his press conference last week. And there will be more of those press conferences in the days that follow.

People in politics have long bemoaned the way in which they are viewed by the population at large and speak about how we all have to work to fix it. This is exactly that process of fixing it. It’s not easy, it’s not comfortable, but it certainly is necessary.

 

Amanda Alvaro:

Think about how remarkable it is that it’s 2018 and we’re extending workplace protections to political staffers for the first time.

But to understand how significant it is, you have to appreciate the culture. For years, decades even, we’ve allowed a culture of intimidation and harassment to flourish. Young women, holding subordinate positions, who put forward complaints about male politicians and those in leadership positions are often discounted or ignored completely to protect political figures.

A recent government study revealed over 60 percent of mainly female staffers reported some sexual harassment in the workplace in 2017. 60 percent!

And while 75 percent said they had reported the most recent incident, 41 per cent said nothing was done to address the abuse.

It was so widely accepted that it was almost expected. Rumours circulated to caution staffers about the worst offenders. And despite a protection mentality, we utterly failed to protect the right people. The victims of sexual harassment, misconduct, intimidation and bullying. Until #metoo.

C-65 will begin to address that by doing two things:

1.  Amend the Canada Labour Code to make harassment and violence, including sexual harassment and violence, part of the activities employers are required to prevent and act on and will also require them to investigate and report on any incidents brought to their attention. 

2.  Will finally bring parliamentary and political staff under the protection of those new provisions.

We need a mechanism in place and tools available to workplaces as well, so that there is a clear protocol for how to deal with workplace harassment. Many of the individuals involved have reported not knowing what to do when allegations surfaced to them and the victims asked them to remain quiet. C-65 provides a pathway for both victims and employers.

 

Tom Parkin:

I once again want to make the point that C-65 is good, but really only because it allows for regulations, not because of the act itself.

In 2009, the Ontario government added harassment to health and safety law, but did not implement regulations about prevention. Let's keep our eyes on this and make sure that doesn't happen again.

Any regulations cannot be specific about how harassment is addressed and dealt with. The usual human resources response is progressive discipline which is proportional to the offence.

And what will be important to the Board of Internal Economy (I think that's where this will land) is that the outcomes need to be seen to be impartial and proportionate.

Already we are getting complaints that former Liberal minister Kent Herh is being treated more lightly than previous cases because he is the last Calgary Liberal MP left standing.

That might be true or false, but what is important is that there needs to be one set of rules enforced consistently so that these sorts of complaints cannot arise.

We cannot have, for example, a repeat of the situation with Trudeau's Ministerial ethics guidelines that banned cash for access fundraising but were enforced by Trudeau himself; that is, not enforced and there was nothing anyone could do to force him to enforce the rules. That would be an unacceptable outcome.

So, there are many challenges to come and I hope the focus stays on this debate so the people I know who work in politics are treated properly, but also because this will become the law in all federal workplaces and may become the model for provinces. Please, let’s do this right!

 

Will Stewart:

I agree with Tom that the bill is a good first step, and sure, let’s have some significant regulations under that. No question. But at the end of the day, you can't legislate good behaviour. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try however. This bill is a good next step.

Legislation will not change the culture. It is not like the acts that these Liberals and Conservatives have allegedly taken were permissible by law previously. It is not like these MPs/MPPs/MLAs thought that the absence of this bill meant that their actions were OK. And it is not like any of these individuals have faced investigations, much less charges or convictions, before their careers were in tatters.

And frankly, that is more impressive and proper to me than the bill itself. People are rightly outraged. Some of my American clients were envious of how fast things transpired with former Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown, how quickly the party backed away given the experience of extreme partisanship south of the border.

I think Tom is also correct in rightly raising questions about why Kent Herh is still in caucus. He should at least be removed from caucus until this is settled, in line with others that have faced similar accusations. That is where the Bill can be useful. It could set out what happens in these circumstances so that politics is not a consideration.

The Bill formalizes of a long-standing issue that exists in Canada, in both private and public sectors. These recent examples have made it very clear that this behaviour will no longer be tolerated in the workplace, regardless of any legislation imposed by the federal government.

But the behaviour is changing. How we deal with these allegations is progressing, and to be honest, we have a lot more cases to go, which is painfully apparent to anyone inside Ottawa's bubble.

 

Amanda Alvaro:

I think of the bill as a tool in a toolbox. It will provide new protection under new provisions. But it’s just a tool. I think the larger movement will be/is a more powerful motivator for change.

It’s time. Time’s Up. Me Too. Call it what you want. The message is the same: it’s over. No more hiding. No more disbelieving. No more getting away with it. This is not a tidal wave. It is a tsunami of change. And it is long overdue.

A growing list of accused are essentially the poster children for why we need C-65 and the broader movement and why we need an open dialogue about these issues.

Drag it kicking and screaming from the closet. Rip this thing wide open so that no other woman or man ever needs to feel shamed, or unheard, or unprotected.

And I cannot descend into a partisan debate on this one. Because it doesn't live in one party. It's prevalent in all parties. And I don't think anyone would be tolerant of “different treatment” for the same accusations.

 

Amanda Alvaro is a veteran Liberal strategist, political commentator and cofounder and President of Pomp & Circumstance. Will Stewart is Managing Principal at Navigator, served as Chief of Staff to several Ontario Ministers and often appears as a national affairs commentator.  Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist, columnist and a frequent commentator on national issues.  

 

Posted date : January 30, 2018
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