Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

The House of Assembly is having a bullying conversation that is long overdue

The political culture in Newfoundland and Labrador has always been rough, but is now shifting, writes Fred Hutton.

Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador has always been rough, but it's definitely changing

Premier Dwight Ball has found himself on the defensive over allegations of harassment and bullying among politicians at Confederation Building. (Paul Daly/Canadian Press)

Legend has it that when former Premier Joey Smallwood appointed anyone to his cabinet, he also made them sign their own letter of resignation.

Smallwood kept those letters in his desk — to use at his discretion. It was the ultimate weapon to keep his ministers in line.

While simultaneously signing an oath and resignation is no longer done, it appears that, for some, the old way of doing things in politics is alive and well within the halls of the same building once ruled by the last living father of Confederation.

Wielding power over others in politics is nothing new.

They call it a "game," but it's one that can be cutthroat and ruthless.

Where the bodies lie

Ask anyone who ever held office and knows where the bodies are buried.

Joseph R. Smallwood, who led the Newfoundland government for more than 20 years, was known for an uncompromising style of leadership. (Submitted by Jeanene Walsh)

Toeing the party line is the centuries-old accepted and expected first rule by which elected officials must abide. Speaking out of turn means running the risk of being banished to the political wilderness — far from the reaches of project funding for their own constituencies.

What countless principles have been compromised over the years in favour of maintaining favourable status within any given party?

Is it too naive to think that politicians should be permitted to think for themselves? And, to go a step further, to reflect the wishes of those who elected them, without fear of reprisals from their own caucus?

Would anything get done in the legislative chamber, or would it be a free-for-all?

Since ballots were cast

Bullying and intimidation have been part of politics since before the first ballots were cast. They have been widely viewed as acceptable behaviour — but clearly no more.

Over the last two weeks, we have seen accusations of harassment, bullying, intimidation and isolation. There have been accusations from a current minister, a former minister, two government backbenchers and a member of the Opposition.

Liberal cabinet minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh, left, and PC MHA Tracey Perry have both made complaints about Eddie Joyce, the former minister of municipal affairs. (CBC)

It's little wonder so few people are lining up for the task to represent.

It's also probably why, with every election, we see dwindling voter turnout at the polls.

Party discipline is enforced by a person known as the "whip." The title says it all.

Vote this way, do this, do that … or else. 

Or else what? If that title doesn't conjure up an image of a bully, what does?

How much did the premier know? 

Dwight Ball, like any political leader, needs to have the full support of his caucus. Anything less shows dissension and unrest in the ranks.

Ball says he is not going anywhere. While nobody within his caucus has come directly out and said it, it's fair to say that many have implied that if he didn't know about the bad behaviour, he should have.

We've seen the ugly side of politics here in this province in recent days. We've seen the hurt, the pain and the divisiveness. It has been a major distraction from other pressing issues.

Two of the MHAs, Pam Parsons and Colin Holloway, have even gone to the police to complain about an anonymous (and now suspended) Twitter account, @WackJobNL.

They actually think the threats and insults hurled at them on that account may be from someone within their own party.

How low does it have to go before changes are made?

Apparently this is it. We're there. 

Whether the allegations of bullying are true or false — and they have yet to be proven — the mindset of allowing perceived aggressive behaviour within politics is shifting.

It's a conversation long overdue, but the timing is unfortunate.

In a province that's teetering on an economic cliff, our elected officials should be focused on things to keep the place afloat, not something that sinks it even further.


Fred Hutton is a former co-host of the St. John's Morning Show.