OTTAWA - We are 30 years past the days when a “tactile” John Turner slapped Liberal party president Iona Campagnolo on the bum and countered questions about his behaviour by accusing us of having misplaced our collective sense of humour.
Looking back on that this week in light of allegations made against two Liberals MP, the remarkable thing about the 1984 controversy was Turner’s media scrum afterward, in which guys “grilled” one of the most unabashed “guy’s guy” to ever seek power in this country and all decided it was a harmless locker room tactic and it was time to move on.
The allegations against Liberal MPs Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti may very well be much more serious than Turner’s Mad Men-style greeting. We don’t know. They deny any wrongdoing.
But the infamous Turner episode was one of the all-time great moments in the life of the “Old Boys Club” on Parliament Hill.
It was a club that extended to the Parliamentary Press Gallery, an exclusive circle of privilege for white men who never knew harassment, never knew workplace fear and could explain anything away with a beer and a dissection of last night’s game at the Press Club bar.
Was Turner’s bum-pat a watershed?
Hardly. The Old Boys Club chugged along blissfully for years.
That’s why I’m skeptical we are on the verge of any watershed in Ottawa in 2014.
The very fact that Parliament has no effective mechanism to even deal with sexual harassment in the workplace shows how elusive that watershed moment might yet be.
We are, however, moving in the proper direction.
“The best analysts of harassment are those subject to harassment,’’ one longtime MP told me this week. “I’m not in that category.’’
Neither am I.
Being a white guy on Parliament Hill meant entry into one of the most comfortable clubs in the country.
No male politician today could ever laugh off inappropriate behaviour like Turner. He would simply have his head handed to him on a platter by an aggressive press gallery and political opponents, both ranks with many more (but not enough) women among them.
One by one, the Old Boys’ perks have fallen, unlamented.
Friday nights in the Press Club, off-the-record Gallery dinners, long, liquid lunches, the first jug of draft brought up to the office on Friday afternoons, smoking in the Centre Block foyer, selective government leaks, Christmas expense account blowouts at long-ago bulldozed restaurants, unilingual anglophones aspiring to national office, ignoring sexual harassment.
The last one is proving the toughest to eradicate.
There is harassment in newsrooms, law offices, hospitals and insurance companies but the bar for a safe workplace environment should be set higher in our Parliament than anywhere else.
But any national leadership role regularly abuts with a working environment that fosters just the contrary.
“It’s high stress. We are away from our families. It is a strange place to work, and I don’t think a lot of people understand,’’ NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie said Thursday.
Loneliness plays a role. There is drinking, and, as Leslie says, “situations are created.’’
Proximity to perceived power and the power imbalances in this town are thrown into a potentially toxic mix.
Partisanship can also light the fuse and rivalries can lead to innuendo, smears and false rumours. Social media can give wings to rumours and falsehoods.
Now, even as a House of Commons tries to handle a volatile situation with some alacrity and justice for all concerned, it appears to be slipping again into partisanship.
New Democrats are upset with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for publicly suspending the duo without giving a heads-up to the NDP.
One of the NDP complainants, we are told, learned from Twitter that what she believed to be a private complaint was about to become a public matter.
Opposition leader Tom Mulcair says his MPs have been victimized a second time.
While their frustration is understandable, it is also hard to see what else Trudeau could do when he was made aware of the allegations.
To try to do something quietly, or to be seen to be working with New Democrats to keep matters behind closed doors, or worse, to be seen to be sitting on the allegations while some private probe was undertaken, would have eventually become public and would have caused Trudeau untold damage.
The complainants are entitled to their privacy while the two accused men are due a fair, speedy hearing.
In days of yore this would have been simple. The Old Boys would have handled this quickly with a couple of pints after work. We should be thankful that club’s numbers are dwindling.