Cathy Bennett calls out bullying by Liberals; not in my cabinet, says Dwight Ball

Newfoundland and Labrador MHA Cathy Bennett says she was intimidated and bullied by her Liberal colleagues, and that's one reason she resigned from cabinet.

Former finance minister says she was subjected to bullying, isolation and gaslighting

Cathy Bennett tells the St. John's Morning Show she encountered continual intimidation and isolation in the Liberal cabinet and caucus. (CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador MHA Cathy Bennett says she was intimidated and bullied within her own Liberal caucus and cabinet, which ultimately contributed to her stepping down as provincial finance minister last year.

Bennett's claims come amid claims of harassment and bullying within the ranks of the Liberal Party. In the last week, both Eddie Joyce and Dale Kirby have been removed from caucus and their cabinet positions due to allegations by MHAs in both the Liberal and PC parties.

Bennett resigned as finance minister last July, and many assumed it was because of personal attacks she faced on social media.

However, in an exclusive interview with CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show, Bennett said her departure had a lot to do with the bullying and intimidation she received from other Liberals in both cabinet and caucus meetings.

"It was a real fear for me. I feared for my reputation and the work I was doing."

The MHA for Windsor Lake stopped short of naming specific politicians she said intimidated her.

Bennett said remarks she made bringing forward a private-members bill in March about workplace harassment described her own experience.

It was a real fear for me. I feared for my reputation and the work I was doing.- Cathy Bennett

"I said, 'She had refused to cooperate with his plans. So he made sure he gossiped about her, he spread rumours about her, he tried to ruin her reputation and her career and she silently persevered while struggling with the emotional abuse from the bully.'" she said.

"That was my story"

Premier: 'no bullying'

In question period Tuesday, Opposition Leader Paul Davis and NDP leader Gerry Rogers both grilled Premier Dwight Ball on what he knew about the bullying Bennett experienced, and when. 

Davis repeatedly asked if Bennett told him what was going on when she finally resigned on July 31, 2017.

"We spent a lot of time together, no bullying at the cabinet table," Ball told reporters outside of the House of Assembly.

Ball said Bennett told him she was leaving for personal reasons and that "it was not a good day" when she left cabinet. 

"People could be feeling the intimidation at the table when you're having some tense and tough discussions," he said, but added he does not tolerate inappropriate behaviour.

Leaders don't resign in challenging times.- Dwight Ball

"I've always encouraged people if they felt intimidated at any circumstance at all to bring that information forward, and I still do."

Asked if he would resign following a week that has called his leadership into question, Ball said he would not.

"Leaders don't resign in challenging times," he said. "They step up, and we will lead this province through this."

Not able to govern, NDP says

NDP leader Gerry Rogers said she feels Ball is no longer fit to be premier.

"I do believe that the premier needs to resign. It's clear that he and his government are no longer able to govern in this very critical time in the history of the province and this is a very serious issue," Rogers said.

"They're in disarray. Obviously their caucus is in dysfunction and we can't afford that. The people of the province deserve better, the people of the province need better governance by that. I believe that we are all astounded at what we have seen occur in the past week."

Ches Crosbie, the leader of the Progressive Conservatives, said he didn't think Ball resigning would fix the problem.

He said the next general election will really be the time to create change, but wants to see Justice Minister Andrew Parsons move forward on a promised all-party committee on democratic reform before then.

Responsibility to speak out

Bennett said she was isolated from discussions through a "mobbing" effect — when a group of people overwhelmingly support one opinion and discount any dissenting ones.

She also referred to being subjected to "mild gaslighting" — when a person is manipulated to feel out of line or even crazy, or the bystander effect, where the majority sides with the bully despite whether they agree with them or not.

Bennett said she was inspired to speak out in the wake of the allegations against Municipal Affairs Minister Eddie Joyce and Education Minister Dale Kirby, who both were removed from cabinet and caucus in the last week.

Liberal MHA and former finance minister Cathy Bennett says she faced intimidation and isolation from members within the Liberal ranks. She revealed her struggles in an exclusive interview with the St. John's Morning Show. 23:13

"I have very brave colleagues who've spoken out. Both Sherry Gambin-Walsh and Tracey Perry have made it safer for me to come forward," she said.

"Just like I felt a responsibility in December of 2016, I feel a responsibility to come forward and support my collegues."

Cultural problem

Bennett said one example of the isolation she experienced was when other caucus members would purposely not talk to her in meetings, or when decisions were made behind her back without her input.

"You can have disagreements about policy. I think that's one of the really important things," she said.

"But when your difference of opinion turns into quiet whisper campaigns, or things like being excluded from discussions, that's where it crosses a line."

Cathy Bennett stands in the House of Assembly in 2016, during her time as finance minister. Bennett claims the culture of bullying in cabinet and the Liberal caucus contributed to her eventually stepping down from her position in cabinet. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

Bennett said the bullying she experienced was often very sophisticated and nuanced, and pointed more to a cultural problem than specific earth-shattering examples.

"It was the culture, it was the environment. It's the bad behaviour that's allowed to happen that puts people in situations where they question whether or not they are competent and if they're able to contribute," she said.

"I got into politics to try and do the right thing, and I'm not perfect. But I tried and was passionate about trying. But the intimidation and workplace environment and bad behaviour that continued made it very, very very challenging."

Need for leadership

As someone who was involved in the restaurant business for decades, Bennett said her experience has been that the private sector has made greater progress on addressing bullying than has the provincial government.

She said government is often working under norms that may have been acceptable in previous generations, but aren't today. Bennett said there are male MHAs who just as "bewildered" as she is over behaviour within the Liberal ranks, and that the bullying is only coming from certain members within the caucus.

It's been really challenging for people who love me. They've been really hurt.- Cathy Bennett

While she wouldn't accuse Ball specifically of intimidation, she said a leader's behaviour can set the tone for how a group or organization functions.

"A CEO or a leader of an organization has a right and responsibility to set the tone and also set the values by which the organization needs to operate," she said. "If they don't, that behaviour will continue."

For the last several days, Ball — who defeated Bennett and three other candidates for Newfoundland and Labrador's Liberal leadership in 2013 — has been attempting to quell dissatisfaction within the most senior levels of his party. 

"This is not about control over caucus, this is about keeping the integrity of the government I lead," Ball told reporters Monday, hours after Kirby was removed from both cabinet and caucus. 

Personal toll

In March, Bennett introduced a private member's bill on workplace harassment, but said more needs to be done to end the systematic problem of bullying that she experienced within Liberal ranks.

She would like to see a specialized group brought in to investigate workplace bullying at the House of Assembly, but in the meantime she's prepared for any backlash she might get from speaking out.

Bennett said perhaps the hardest part of her experience has been the personal toll on her family and the challenge of explaining to her children why they may see or read such negative things about her in the news.

"It's been really challenging for people who love me. They've been really hurt," she said.

"One positive is that they're learning, and they're understanding what's acceptable and what's not acceptable and that's a gift they'll be able to take into their adult lives and the workplaces that they'll someday participate in."

With files from Fred Hutton, Meghan McCabe and Anthony Germain, Geoff Bartlett, Andrew Sampson