OTTAWA—In an arena defined by power, ego, and the rise and fall of leaders, the political developments over the past 10 days are still astonishing. Patrick Brown, Kent Hehr, and Erin Weir—all confronting unexpected consequences for alleged behaviour. Investigations have been activated, rules are being rewritten. Is it any surprise that heads are spinning, or that panic among certain political operatives has set in as some brace for more? At the same time, however, some are feeling encouraged now that the tables are potentially turning.
The remarkable debate over Labour Minister Patty Hajdu’s very timely Bill C-65—tabled last Monday—is emblematic of the silver lining. Largely led by female MPs from every party, few held back from denouncing a dysfunctional political culture that has often made a mockery of women’s commitment to public service. This rare and honest discussion about the perversions of politics should be mandatory viewing for all Canadians, including Conservative MP Michelle Rempel’s highly astute deconstruction of what makes Parliament Hill tick.
Moreover, for one of the first times, there was a candid airing within, not outside of, the House of Commons regarding the institutional dynamics that can make political spaces, in particular, treacherous. These include: MPs who spend more than half the year away from their families, an endless supply of eager staffers with precarious employment, significant age differences between MPs and their employees, few human resources protocols, excessive tribalism and party loyalty, as well as a work environment that extends well beyond the office into countless evening receptions, and social and community events.
Unlike many regular workplaces, the lines are constantly blurred, and the conduct of elected officials as employers is rarely scrutinized or meaningfully assessed. Politics is at its core a game of survival, and our collective focus on the major players and their parties has systematically obscured its uncomfortable, and often ugly, underbelly. Parliamentary privilege hasn’t helped either.
But one should not overestimate the impact of this moment. The declarations from many a journalist that this week’s events forever changes how politicians will conduct themselves is far reaching. While no doubt the #MeToo movement is shifting the dynamic of who is heard, and potentially believed, when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, the behaviour of elected officials with bad judgment will not magically change overnight.
Habits are nothing if not tenacious, and it’s difficult to imagine 338 tee-totalling MPs who dutifully return to their Ottawa apartments every evening and catch up on issue briefs.
The remarkable debate over Labour Minister Patty Hajdu’s very timely Bill C-65—tabled last Monday—is emblematic of the silver lining. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
A case in point are the endless receptions in Ottawa to which MPs are constantly invited. In addition to a generous supply of alcohol, these events offer valuable contact with stakeholders and others—and the chance for MPs and Senators to burn off some steam outside of school. The constraints of House duty, Question Period, committees and countless lobby and constituent meetings are temporarily suspended. MPs converge across party lines. Sometimes, it has merit.
There is no doubt, however, that a minority of MPs have seized upon these occasions, among others, to imbibe beyond reason, and pursue reckless personal agendas that are inappropriate, damaging, and unbecoming of any elected official who has been sent to Ottawa in good faith. The fact that this behaviour has perennially been dismissed as boys being boys shows you how normalized it is. That it has taken so long to call anyone to account for it is a sad but predictable commentary on institutionalized and anachronistic (masculine) power.
As Equal Voice has said time and again, Canada’s Parliament was conceived before women had the right to vote. The vestiges of 19th-century conduct and practices loom large over how Parliament continues to function on a day to day basis. The absence of a truly independent process to investigate sexual harassment complaints (pending the passage of Bill 65) is exhibit #1. This clearly must—and will—change.
So should the provisions for maternity leave for female MPs which would enable them to work from their ridings for a short period—with the support of tele/video conferencing. Moreover, the hours and eligibility for kids in the Hill daycare must be modified. Soon, there will two MPs (Niki Ashton and Karina Gould) with three babies under the age of 18 months without access to the childcare centre that was ostensibly established to meet their needs. Except it doesn’t. I’d bet on a fourth baby within a year. No one is saying MPs shouldn’t pay for the services. But at a minimum, they need to be offered.
Further, the proposal for rigorous codes of conduct, as mentioned by Michelle Rempel in the House, needs to be seriously considered. While it is not always evident that parties are the best arbiters of their members’ behaviour and misconduct, crystal clear rules and an explicit commitment by MPs to conduct themselves to meet the highest standard is imperative—or we risk even deeper cynicism about politics and its outcomes.
Finally, we need more women in this House. Some 27 per cent is not good enough. Ultimately, cultures don’t change until people do. And part of that formula is compelling parties to actively recruit many more women, and diverse women at that, to contest nominations in competitive ridings. This is not rocket science. It is simple math—and it is not hard. Ultimately, electing more women is the clarion call. Without this bigger push towards gender parity in politics, many of the grandiose efforts on display right now are unlikely to stick.
Nancy Peckford is the national spokesperson for Equal Voice.
The Hill Times