Politics

Stamping out sexual harassment in politics can't be a partisan issue: Chris Hall

It’s not often that the obvious answers are the right ones. But past and present MPs and political staffers say this week’s sexual misconduct allegations against prominent male politicians just might be an exception as momentum gathers for change.

'We need to have clear, anti-harassment policies for staff and for elected officials,' says Megan Leslie

Parliament returns Monday when MPs will debate a government bill to expand harassment rules to cover political offices. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It's not often that the obvious answers are the right ones. But past and present MPs and political staffers say this week's sexual misconduct allegations against prominent male politicians just might be an exception.

Their recommendations couldn't be clearer: Guidelines on what constitutes sexual harassment. Training for everyone, including those people holding elected office. And a process for dealing with complaints quickly and respectfully.

And there's one more.

"Politicians should resist the urge to make this a partisan issue. It happens in every party," said former Liberal staffer Greg MacEachern who is now a senior vice-president with Environics Communications. "Put principle above party."

The federal government has already put forward a bill to update the Canada Labour Code so that it includes clear definitions of what constitutes harassment, and to expand its coverage to the House of Commons and other Parliamentary institutions.

Labour Minister Patty Hajdu says the proposed legislation will be accompanied by training, education and a toll-free hotline to help employees understand their rights, and a requirement employers put in place appropriate policies to respond to complaints.

A power imbalance

The goal is to correct the enormous power imbalance between politicians and their staff.

"They are precarious workers. Their job relies on their MP being re-elected," said former New Democrat MP Megan Leslie, who joined MacEachern and Conservative MP Lisa Raitt on CBC Radio's The House to discuss what politicians and parties have to do to ensure respectful and safe work environments.

"We need to have clear, anti-harassment policies for staff and for elected officials. Clear guidelines for volunteers and interns. Because it happens to them, too."

Patrick Brown leaves a press conference Wednesday after denying sexual misconduct allegations against him. He resigned as Ontario PC leader hours later. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

As others have written, the #MeToo movement is encouraging more and more people to come forward with their experiences working for powerful men, people who invariably held the working lives of many in their hands.

Their courage in speaking up is being rewarded with action. Patrick Brown resigned as leader of the Ontario PCs — with an election just months away and his party leading in the polls — because his caucus and staff demanded it.

 'And I commend them for coming forward. Now it's caused an awful lot of turmoil in politics but, you know, that's OK.'- Conservative MP Lisa Raitt

The same fate awaited Jamie Baillie in Nova Scotia. He was forced to step aside after his Conservative party's investigation concluded he violated its harassment policy.

And federal Liberal cabinet minister Kent Hehr resigned Thursday pending the outcome of an investigation into complaints of sexual harassment.

Raitt said she has no doubt that #MeToo is a powerful motivator for speaking up.

More training, clear rules the key

"They wanted it to be a warning to others that you don't have to put up with this in the workplace, and I commend them for coming forward. Now it's caused an awful lot of turmoil in politics but, you know, that's OK."

Raitt, and others, fully expect more cases to become public in the coming days.

Holding politicians accountable for their tawdry actions in the past is only part of the change that's needed. Raitt says all MPs have to understand the rules. Understand the process for identifying improper behaviour, and to share that with political staff.

"I am going to take it upon myself to ensure that whatever communication I can do to show that they have a number to call. They've got a person to contact. It's going to be an open door."

Lisa Raitt, deputy leader of the Conservative Party, Megan Leslie, former NDP MP, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada, and Greg MacEachern, a former Liberal Hill staffer, now senior vice-president of Environics Communications, discuss the aftermath what should happen after allegations of sexual misconduct forced out two provincial party leaders -- in Ontario and in Nova Scotia -- and one federal cabinet minister. 11:20

Greg MacEachern says focusing on prevention and empowering staff is long overdue.

"I can tell you as a former ministerial aide I never, ever had this conversation with a chief of staff or a minister. So I'm hoping with the legislation coming in, that part of the process will be education and training for both the politician and the staff about what is acceptable."

He recounted a story on social media last fall of a young woman who came to talk to him about leaving the Hill for a new job, and during the conversation she broke down.

"And  it became very clear why this young woman wanted to leave Parliament Hill. She was a fantastic staffer. She had a bright future ahead of her and felt she could no longer work in politics. And it was very evident."

MacEachern also posted that in the next election, any candidate who wants his vote or money must prove to him that he or she is actively doing something to eliminate harassment.

Still, even he worries about the potential consequences of going public.

"I will tell you, as a man, I feel sometimes that there will be potential recriminations. The old boys network probably isn't happy with this. What will it mean for me. What does this mean for my business. If that's what I feel about a social media post, what does a woman feel to actually bring this forward."

The proposed changes to the Canada Labour Code will be debated Monday when the House of Commons resumes after the Christmas break.

It will be the first chance to see whether politicians will treat it as the non-partisan issue so many others think that it should be. And the first indication of how quickly MPs intend to move in response to those sexual misconduct allegations already out there — and the ones that are likely still to come.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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