The NDP tries to catch up with the #MeToo era
Changing the policy is easy. Changing the culture could be harder.
The federal NDP released a draft of its new harassment policy to party members at its policy convention on Friday, not long after the eruption of harassment allegations within its own ranks.
But for the NDP — as for all political parties — coming up with the right process is only half the job. To make the process stick, the party has to effect real, lasting cultural change.
And it's the nature of party politics itself that might make that change hard to bring about.
The NDP's federal council actually began reviewing the party's anti-harassment policy several months ago, before the allegations against former MP Peter Stoffer and current MP Erin Weir emerged. So it was likely going to be on the convention agenda regardless.
"It just kind of happens that it's a very topical issue," party pesident Marit Stiles said in an interview this week.
Speaking from the convention stage on Friday, Stiles publicly acknowledged "our collective failure as a party and as a society" to properly address the concerns of women. Some women in the party, she said, have been "embarrassed, demeaned and violated."
"Let me say on behalf of all of us in our party, we are sorry," Stiles said. "You were failed and we apologize."
A new policy and a new statement of principles
The NDP's current harassment policy runs to a single page and deals only with party conventions. The new draft policy is eight pages long and would cover all party volunteers, staff and members and all party-related activities.
It's accompanied by an "equity statement," detailing the party's commitment to a "respectful, safe and inclusive" environment. The statement is to be read aloud at the start of all meetings of New Democrats.
"I think what we've realized in the last month or so is that not only is this an opportunity to seek input," Stiles said, "but it's also an opportunity to share with our members our very strong statement about what we consider acceptable and unacceptable, and where we want to head as a party, and how we have to change political culture generally."
Stoffer, now accused of inappropriately touching and speaking to women working on and around Parliament Hill, will not be present at the convention this weekend in Ottawa. But those allegations, and suggestions that the party did not appropriately respond to concerns about Stoffer's behaviour, are certain to hang over all the discussions about harassment and equity.
Weir, the NDP MP for Regina-Lewvan, is still suspended from his caucus duties pending an investigation into non-specific allegations levelled against him by fellow NDP MP Christine Moore. Meanwhile, the Manitoba wing of the party is investigating allegations against a former cabinet minister.
In addition to the new policy and equity statement, anti-harassment training will be offered at the NDP convention on Saturday and a resolution on harassment might come to the floor for debate and a vote on Sunday.
'A lot of education needs to happen'
That the NDP, a party that has loudly championed equity and equality, now has to confront cases of misconduct within its own ranks only shows how the problem has become endemic in Canadian politics.
"There's a lot of education that needs to happen, and no one is immune from that, regardless of how progressive they may be on some issues," says Amy Kishek, a former aide to an NDP MP, now a labour lawyer.
Beyond this weekend's proposals, Kishek points to other steps that would contribute to change. MPs, she notes, should be trained to manage offices and staff and people need to be trained to recognize misconduct. Men within parties need to take responsibility for dealing with the problem of harassment. And parties need to prioritize early intervention to correct inappropriate behaviour.
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Some of those changes are structural in nature, while others are cultural. And it's the cultural changes, says Kishek, that could come into conflict with the character of politics as a team sport.
"Having a strong reporting structure can't hurt the situation, but it's the nature of partisanship on the Hill that makes it difficult for people to come forward and want to expose themselves or challenge any elected member or a colleague in a more senior position in the party," she says.
"Partisanship has that silencing effect on many people in the party, and not just with sexual harassment, but with other forms of workplace harassment."
Overcoming that might be difficult. But emphasizing the problem and publicly committing to do better is certainly somewhere to start.
"I am encouraged by the tone the party has set at [the] convention. The language in the opening remarks was strong and unequivocal and rightly rooted in supporting survivors and marginalized voices," Kishek says. "I hope whatever process follows is similarly effective and cogent."