Opinion Opinion

When it comes to harassment in politics, powerful people are writing rules for themselves: Neil Macdonald

The problem is not just in Congress. It's in the House of Commons, too

Posted: November 29, 2017

Anyone who's ever worked on Parliament Hill has heard stories of what goes on. It's not really much different from Washington. Power seeks sex and money. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As required, I've read and consented to updates of CBC's regulations covering sexual harassment and other venality.

The rules are exceedingly clear, and similar to those governing employees at other Crown corporations or public servants in government departments.

Basically, it spells out unacceptable behaviour: bullying, unwanted sexual advances, uninvited physical contact, sexual innuendo, demeaning language, discrimination based on bigotry, etc., and warns that offenders will be disciplined, or fired. Period.


The document seems sensible, unremarkable. But then I'm not an elected politician. I've never enjoyed the "privileges, powers and immunities" (to use Parliament's own jargon) that come with election to federal office.

Human nature being what it is, it isn't hard to imagine what happens when powerful, privileged and immune people get to write rules governing their own behaviour.

Governing Congress and Commons

The United States Congress is a superb example. And the Canadian House of Commons isn't much different.

As an old acquaintance who once worked at the very apex of the Canadian public service puts it, politicians have enacted specific policies to protect themselves against their victims.

Under Congressional rules, an employee who tries to complain about sexual misconduct by a politician is quickly hogtied and silenced. It's atrocious.

The very act of submitting a complaint is characterized as a "request for counselling," as though the victim is the one in need of counselling. And, of course, there's a non-disclosure agreement.


If the complainant can't be counselled out of complaining, she or he must participate in a month or so of mandatory mediation. With the offending boss. And, of course, continue to show up for work.

There's then a month-long "cooling-off" period, which, presumably, allows her or his unthinking anger to cool, and to perhaps further consider dropping the matter.

Only then, 90 days later, can an investigation begin. Oh, and the taxpayer pays the legal bills of the accused politician, but not the complainant.

It's like a bunch of guys got together and made Congress a great place to be a sexual harasser. Actually, that's exactly what happened.

To be fair, there are politicians trying to change the system. Naturally, they're all women.

Democrat Jackie Speier says the system in Congress is designed to protect harassers. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Republican Barbara Comstock and Democrat Jackie Speier have publicly (and most unwelcomely, no doubt, where their male colleagues are concerned) accused unnamed fellow politicians of grabbing and fondling to their hearts' content, sometimes on the actual floor of Congress.


Speier has called it a system set up to protect harassers. Sen. Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said the secrecy must end.

Perhaps it will. Doubtful, but maybe.

And Canada? I spent a day this week asking officials in Ottawa about the accountability of MPs and senators. The answer: see above reference to powerful people writing rules for themselves.

Policy on Parliament Hill

The House of Commons does have a policy.

It's a most discreet policy. Discretion, not the offence itself, is clearly the paramount concern. Almost every paragraph begins with an admonition to everyone involved about maintaining total confidentiality.

Like Congress's policy, it gags the accuser and lends enormous benefit of the doubt to the accused. Unlike CBC's policy, or the rules of the public service, it doesn't even mention punishment. That sort of distasteful stuff is left to the discretion of party whips. Perhaps the loss of a committee chair, or a parliamentary secretaryship.


The Canadian code begins by strongly urging the complainant to engage first and directly with the harasser, basically hoping to high heaven things can be settled quietly and privately.

That must be comfortable for a woman who's been groped. Gropers are such sympathetic listeners, especially when they're your boss.

The two sides can even seek advice from the coordinator of the "Finding Solutions Together Program." Seriously. Such a thing exists. Formal mediation is also "strongly encouraged."

Eventually, though, if the complainant is stubborn enough, the complaint can be investigated. The investigation must be secret, and both sides have to agree to secrecy, and the witnesses have to keep their testimony secret.

The complainant does have the right to know the investigator's final finding, but only if he or she agrees not to discuss it with anyone else, because, you know, it's secret.


Gag, gaggity, gag, gag.

Now, anyone who's ever worked on Parliament Hill has heard stories of what goes on. It's not really much different from Washington. Power seeks sex and money.

So. Since this code of conduct was adopted three years ago, how many investigations have there been?

The answer, from a senior official speaking on background: it's secret. The House has acknowledged the existence of exactly one inquiry, and another is apparently reaching its conclusion. The party affiliation of the members involved, of course, remains secret.

The official reason is that MPs are special. So very special. They're not employees, so cannot be subject to the rules that govern ordinary public service plebs. They cannot be fired or even disciplined by anyone other than their party leadership.

Remember, they enjoy "privileges and powers and immunities" that must be respected if democracy is to survive in this country.


The whole process is overseen by the Commons Board of Internal Economy, which could instruct CSIS on keeping information secret.

"It's quite gross," says Green Party leader Elizabeth May. "The Board of Internal Economy is the ultimate protective mechanism for the three main parties."

May says, with some understatement, that the MPs code of conduct is "weak," and that you'd think an elected member's conduct is a matter of public interest. But: "The rules around here don't tend to tilt toward 'we should make this public.'

"No party is going to approve any policy that can blow back and hurt them. There is solidarity."

Senate code

Then there's the Senate. Senators are effectively hired — not elected — help, but they have powers and privileges, too.

The Senate has had a policy in place since 1993.


Unlike the one adopted by the House down the hall, the Senate code actually does address punishment and discipline for misbehaviour.

Alison Korn, Senate spokeswoman, passed on a long quote from a senator praising the system.

I asked how many investigations have taken place since then, and how many complaints were upheld. The answer:  "…the Senate does not disclose information pertaining to these matters. Thank you."

Korn then wrote back to say that three formal harassment complaints have been received by Senate human resources within the past two years. The senators involved, the offences and the outcomes? Secret.

All this said, we are not America. We don't have the touchingly feminist breast-grabbing Sen. Al Franken, we don't have what appears on strongly corroborated evidence to be a child molester running for high office with the chief executive's endorsement, and we don't have a self-described genital-grabbing enthusiast in charge of the country who has an army of rabid supporters standing between him and justice for all the women who've accused him.

But then, we don't really know what we have, do we? Other than a political class whose privileges, powers and immunities swaddle it in secrecy and gags complainants.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.