Toronto Star's View: Ottawa’s secretive board of...
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Nov 18, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Toronto Star's View: Ottawa’s secretive board of internal economy should be open on harassment

To set an example to country Ottawa’s secretive board of internal economy should be open and transparent as it drafts new harassment rules for MPs

OurWindsor.Ca

As Canadians engage in a very public fit of soul-searching about sexual harassment, our members of Parliament are finally buckling down to create a mechanism for handling allegations of harassment involving MPs. But that process is scheduled to kick off behind closed doors, at a meeting of Ottawa’s secretive board of internal economy on Tuesday.

The hidden nature of that discussion doesn’t inspire confidence in a well-reasoned outcome.

The habitual stealth employed by the all-party committee seems particularly misplaced on this issue, given that most major employers in Canada already have a harassment policy in place, including procedures to investigate claims, resolve disputes and deal with offenders. Far from leading the nation in harassment prevention, MPs trail almost everyone else.

Federal civil servants are covered by the Canada Labour Code. And other rules are in place to handle grievances from people who work on Parliament Hill. But MPs are excluded.

This absence of rules recently came to the fore when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was made aware that two female New Democratic Party MPs felt they had been harassed, in separate incidents, by two members of his caucus.

Subsequently Trudeau suspended MPs Scott Andrews of Newfoundland and Massimo Pacetti of Quebec from caucus for personal misconduct. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

The Liberal leader soon came under fire for that decision, with New Democrats arguing that the female MPs hadn’t wanted the issue escalated to the point of public action. Yet Trudeau had little choice, given the nation’s current concern.

Shocking and multiple accusations of abuse leveled against former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi have forced the issue on to the public agenda and have made it impossible for people in authority to ignore allegations of harassment within their organization. And rightly so.

The concerns raised by the NDP MPs came in this context, and were quickly followed by a revelation from former Liberal cabinet minister and deputy prime minister Sheila Copps. She said she had been sexually assaulted by a male MPP while she had been a member of the Ontario Legislature.

Obviously, rules are needed so that incidents like these — between parliamentarians — can be properly investigated.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair sent both Trudeau and Prime Minister Stephen Harper a letter last week outlining some possible steps forward, including having an independent Officer of Parliament review complaints and probe allegations.

Whether that task is put in the hands of an independent officer or someone else, it’s essential to have a fair, open-minded, and non-partisan authority in charge of investigating these issues. MPs enduring harassment are far less likely to come forward if the system is perceived as tainted by political concerns.

Ideally — once a formal Code of Conduct is in place, harassment has been clearly defined, and a mechanism for conducting investigations has been set up — the two female NDP MPs whose allegations triggered this reform will be in a position to use it.

According to NDP officials, that probably won’t happen since they didn’t want an official investigation in the first place. If so, whatever is done is unlikely to bring clarity to the situation in which Andrews and Pacetti now find themselves. And that would be a shame.

Members on the board of internal economy may debate a variety of useful approaches, and discuss innovative and unexpected ways to deliver fairness. But the public won’t know what is on offer by way of new rules if the committee insists on maintaining its traditional secrecy.

Some measure of reform is coming, to be sure. But it’s important for Canadians to see how that comes about, what options are considered and who, if any one, proves to be a stumbling block to effective change. Openness is vital. Instead of lagging behind everyone else, MPs should set an example for the entire country.

Toronto Star

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