Almost forgotten in the controversy over harassment on Parliament Hill is the issue of fairness.
Two MPs, Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews have been convicted in the court of public opinion. But the public knows neither the allegations against them nor the names of the two New Democratic Party MPs that they are said to have harassed.
Pacetti and Andrews have been suspended from the Liberal caucus and, for now at least, barred from seeking future Liberal nominations in their own ridings.
To all intents and purposes, their constituents — the voters of Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel in Quebec and Avalon in Newfoundland — are unrepresented.
Is this fair?
On and off Parliament Hill, women (and sometimes men) are routinely harassed. Sometimes, this harassment is serious enough to warrant criminal charges.
Sometimes, it is offensive but not necessarily criminal — “accidentally” leaning against someone on a crowded subway car, making unsolicited sexual comments, leering.
Sometimes, it is just being a jerk.
Harassment is particularly poisonous when there is a power imbalance — as when an employee feels that she has no choice but to accept the unwanted attentions of a boss.
But in all of these situations, there can be a resolution only if two conditions are met. First, the complainant has to be willing to come forward and confront her alleged harasser.
Second, there has to be a fair process to determine the validity of the complaint.
A Commons committee has been looking into the process question. (It concluded Tuesday that another Commons committee should do the job instead).
But in this specific case of Pacetti and Andrews, nothing can happen until the complainants, two female MPs, agree to have the issue brought forward.
So far, they are refusing to do that.
Dick Proctor, a former New Democrat MP and well-respected party insider, told Ottawa’s Hill Times this week that as elected politicians the two women have a chance to show leadership by going public.
“Maybe in this day and age when someone is feeling harassed . . . perhaps they need to be more upfront about it and talk about it, especially for people who have been elected,” Proctor said.
None of this would be easy. Sexual harassment cases are notoriously embarrassing for all concerned.
In 1983, for instance, a former special assistant to then-Liberal MP Al MacBain took her ex-boss to the Canadian Human Rights Commission alleging that he had sexually harassed her by leering, standing too close and inviting himself to her home for dinner.
The commission found in favour of the 28-year-old complainant, Kristina Potapczyk. A subsequent tribunal awarded her $1,500 in damages — although that award was later overturned by the federal court of appeal.
Until his death in 2003, MacBain always denied the charge. Interviewed by the Star in 1987, Potapczyk said she, too, had received little satisfaction.
“Do I feel vindicated?” she said then. “No. He got off.”
In fact, MacBain didn’t escape untarnished. The human rights commission verdict destroyed his political career. In the 1984, federal election he placed third in what had been his Niagara Falls riding.
It was a tough political verdict. But it was fair — delivered by voters who, following a public and open process, knew both the charges against MacBain and his defence.
In the current case, the New Democrats blame the Liberals for making public a matter the two complainants wanted kept quiet.
Conversely, the Liberals argue that their leader, Justin Trudeau, had no choice but to act once one of the complainants had told him of allegations he calls “serious.”
No matter who was at fault, this business is now public.
Two MPs are accused of wrongdoing. But voters, including those whom the MPs represent, don’t know what the specific allegations are or who is levelling them.
I’m sure parliamentarians have the wit to establish a general procedure for adjudicating MP-on-MP complaints.
But for this particular situation to be resolved in a manner that is even remotely fair, the two NDP complainants will have to change their minds about staying silent and come forward.
They will have to identify themselves. They will have to explain exactly what they are alleging. They will have to give the two Liberal MPs a chance to respond.
This is called due process.