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

An op-ed I recently wrote for CBC-NL. You can find it online here.

Rotten, Festering, Abusive Politics …. and the Premier is Simply Playing Ball?

We live in a small place. Playing the Kevin Bacon game is really easy in Newfoundland and Labrador, and as a result, it’s really hard to engage in independent, conflict-of-interest-free policy making. Everyone is linked to everyone else, and having an impartial, independent investigation into toxic behaviour is challenging in a province of our size. But 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 of the province’s MHAs have come forward in the last couple of weeks with allegations of bullying and harassment in the Liberal caucus, and 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 threatening and intimidating fellow party members in a public manner. Frankly, the legislature looks like a scary place to work right now, with intimidation around every corner, and for no good reason. It doesn’t need to be this way: politics does not require this kind of behaviour.

The last few weeks in #nlpoli has shown us the rotten, 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. This means recognition 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”. Some say the premier took action: he asked the Commissioner for Legislative Standards to conduct an investigation. The problem is that by triggering the process in this way, Ball ensured that only he and the folks named in the investigation would receive the report (at the moment, that means only the accused harassers). There are lots of ways that an independent investigation could have been initiated, and the path that the Premier chose leads to protection for the accused harassers.  It lacks transparency. 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 of every other non-public inquiry in our province’s past.

The results of this investigation must be public, so that 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.

What we need is for Mr. 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.

This is party politics. MHAs’ jobs are at stake, Liberal caucus members are beholden to the Premier (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 behavior, and gender-based discrimination and harassment that disadvantages women politicians in particular and affects the way that politics works in the legislature.

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 rotten, festering 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.

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