Opinion

Rotten, festering, abusive politics — and the premier is simply playing Ball?

Premier Ball: you shouldn't be involved in getting to the bottom of these allegations.

Current investigative process lets the old boys' club continue, argues MUN professor

A MUN political science professor says Premier Dwight Ball should acknowledge that leadership requires independence. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

We live in a small place. Playing the game of separation synonymous with Kevin Bacon is really easy in Newfoundland and Labrador, and as a result, it's really hard to engage in a conflict-of-interest-free policy.

While an impartial, independent investigation into toxic behaviour is challenging in a province of our size, that doesn't permit us to simply throw in the towel and give up — it means we should work harder and more carefully to do things right.

Some MHAs have come forward in the last couple of weeks with allegations of bullying and harassment in the Liberal caucus. It's hard not to believe them, especially when we see the boys close ranks to support each other so quickly, accusing people of leaking, and publicly threatening and intimidating fellow party members.

The current process smacks of interference ... What we need is for Mr. Ball to remove himself from the process.

Frankly, the legislature looks like a scary place to work right now and for no good reason. It doesn't need to be this way — politics does not require this kind of behaviour.

Dale Kirby and Eddie Joyce are the subject of harassment and bullying allegations made by several MHAs. (CBC)

The last few weeks in #nlpoli has shown us the dirty underbelly of provincial politics, a side that many have known — or expected — was there all along.

Politics can be a dirty business, but it is also a place where people who care about people, the province, and policy-making go to work every day. The folks in the House of Assembly are there to do really important work, work that needs smart thinking, solid research, and new ideas in order to move this province forward.

The current climate is preventing MHAs from doing this important job, and as citizens, we should be very concerned.

Politics requires leadership

It should be recognized that the existing processes we have in place may not be the best mechanism to deal with the issue at hand, rather than pretending our way is the best way, "the envy of the nation," as Premier Dwight Ball called it.

Some say the premier took action — he asked the Commissioner for Legislative Standards to conduct an investigation. 

Bruce Chaulk, the Commissioner of Legislative Standards, says his phone is ringing with people and firms offering their expertise for the investigation into allegations of MHA bullying and harassment. (CBC)

There are lots of ways that an independent investigation could have been initiated, and the path that Ball chose leads to protection for the accused harassers. It lacks transparency.

Stop protecting the accused, and instead, initiate a process where the victims will have trust in the inquiry.

For most observers who are concerned with the way things are working in the House, this decision stinks: the premier is letting the old boys' club continue, keeping whatever the investigation unearths a secret to die on the shelves alongside every other non-public inquiry in our province's past.

The results of this investigation must be public, so voters can hold harassers accountable and clean house if that's what's called for.

We don't have to look far for examples of independent, open, and public processes dealing with harassment cases: if I want to know what happened in the CBC's investigation of harassment related to Jian Ghomeshi, all I need to do is search the internet and I get a full report.

The seats assigned to now-independent MHAs Dale Kirby and Eddie Joyce will remain empty in the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly, since the men have been granted personal leave. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

What we need is for Ball to remove himself from the process. We need him to initiate a completely independent, public inquiry, run by someone with expertise in the problem at hand.

We need him to ensure that the recommendations of the outcome of the inquiry are binding on the legislature and not subject to the political and partisan pressures of the legislature, the caucus, the government, or even the multi-party management commission headed by the Speaker of the House, which, by my read, has more than one member who is probably in a conflict of interest.

Only an independent inquiry will do

MHAs' jobs are at stake, Liberal caucus members are beholden to Ball and their individual success is tied to the success of the party, and there is far too much pressure to close ranks and support the boys in cabinet.

Even the women who have stood up and made complaints about their colleagues are actually defending the premier publicly, when he let this situation take place, all around him and right in cabinet, likely because pressure from the party dictates they do so.

We have a problem here, and it's not just run-of-the-mill politics. It's about systemic bullying, inappropriate behaviour, and gender-based discrimination and harassment that disadvantages women politicians in particular and affects the way that politics works in the legislature.

Liberal MHA and cabinet member Sherry Gambin-Walsh came forward as the complainant after she says her name was made public by somebody else. Moments later, Eddie Joyce brought up PC MHA Tracey Perry as someone who also complained. (CBC)

Frankly, the House of Assembly is probably not best suited to assessing its own problems. If it was, things would have changed a long time ago, and we wouldn't be seeing such a mess right now.

Our province faces a lot of major challenges, and there are no easy solutions to most of them. On this important issue, however, the solution is clear. Appoint an independent inquiry with no ties to the legislature — preferably from another province — to investigate and make binding recommendations to reform the House of Assembly.

The current process smacks of interference, and the victims don't even believe that the process is fair.

Show the province that you know this is not just a game, Mr. Premier.

Stop dodging the ball and show us that you know that leadership requires independence.

Stop protecting the accused, and instead, initiate a process where the victims will have trust in the inquiry and are willing to come forward. Unless you do, the rot, the festering, and the abuse in the House of Assembly will continue.

Amanda Bittner is an associate professor of political science at Memorial University. She specializes in elections, voting, and public opinion, and teaches courses on political scandals, gender and politics, and public opinion. You can follow her on Twitter: @amandabittner.

Corrections

  • A prior version of this column had said that only Dwight Ball and the accused would receive the report. This is not the case, as complainants of harassment will also receive the report.
    May 25, 2018 11:06 AM NT

About the Author

Amanda Bittner

Politics

Amanda Bittner is an associate professor in Memorial University's Department of Political Science.

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