Stop referring to MPs as employees

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Since the harassment allegations came to light on the Hill almost two weeks ago now, we keep getting caught up in these discussions that frame the issue of a lack of policy around harassment between MPs as somehow being analogous to any kind of policies that already exist between MPs and staff, or between staffers themselves, as would exist in some kind of private sector arrangement.  The lack of awareness that MPs aren’t staff and shouldn’t be treated as such continually gets lost in the discussion, but it’s something that should be at the heart of it, because it informs so much about how this debate needs to happen going forward.

It cannot be said enough, apparently, that MPs are not employees.  They don’t work for the House of Commons, or for the party, or anyone, really.  They’re elected officials, which is a class in and of itself.  They are not beholden to an authority who can fire or discipline them the way that would happen with some other kind of a Human Resources process.  In fact, in most cases MPs are the employers, though on an MP-to-MP basis, they wind up being on relatively equal footing in the hierarchical dynamic.  This means that any mechanism for dealing with harassment complaints between MPs is difficult to conceptualise because there really aren’t higher authorities that can be appealed to.  The Speaker is the servant of the Commons and not its master, and whips and party leaders can only go so far in their ability to discipline and deal with an MP before said MP decides to go independent and free themselves of those shackles.  That the two MPs accused in this case were suspended from caucus gives their party fewer mechanisms to deal with them in fact, and that could actually wind up being more problematic down the road.

Parliament is a self-governing institution, which is something else that seems to escape much of the debate that has happened.  This again is because there is no higher authority that the Commons answers to (and if you say “But, the Queen!” well, I’d have to smack you upside the head and remind you that we live in a system of Responsible Government so no, you can’t appeal to her).  When people bring up things like harassment policies for federal employees, well again, MPs aren’t employees, and the House of Commons isn’t a traditional workplace.  Possibly one of the most boneheaded things I heard on one of the talking head panels on a political show after this issue erupted was why the Minister for the Status of Women wasn’t doing something.  Never mind that she has absolutely no jurisdiction over Parliament, whose job it is to hold her and the government to account and not the other way around.

It’s also been unfair to say that there was no process in place before now.  There was a process, but it was an informal one that handled things behind closed doors.  When whips were made aware of complaints from other MPs or staff, a mediation process was engaged, and as with most workplace harassment policies, the aim was to improve the working environment as opposed to being punitive.  What is different in this instance, however, was that it was an incidence of alleged harassment that crossed party lines, something that has not happened before in the memory of anyone that I have spoken to.  Add to that the atmosphere and conversation around sexual harassment has changed, especially in the wake of the Ghomeshi allegations, and a leader who was made aware of these allegations really couldn’t sit on them.  Justice needs to be seen to be done, after all, and in this highly partisan atmosphere, if it later became known that such a leader had sat on these allegations and done nothing about them, it would have been used as a weapon against them – no matter that the victims wanted it to be kept quiet.

So what now?  A policy does need to be put into place, but I remain wary of the cries that MPs can’t be trusted to govern themselves.  If they can’t, then why are they trusted to lead the country?  They are self-governing for that very reason.  Yes, there are ways to keep them more accountable, and we have different mechanisms to do that, but to simply say MPs can’t be trusted writ large infantilizes our entire democratic system of governance.  That said, there is a great deal of sense in letting an outside third party handle the investigation in order to de-politicize it more than it already has been.  I do, however, object to the need to create yet another independent Officer of Parliament to handle these complaints alone, especially because it’s hard to believe that it’s that common beyond the cultural change that is slowly taking place, and frankly, the demand that we keep creating new Officers of Parliament has reached the stage where we risk becoming a technocracy.  If MPs want to enhance the mandate of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, well, that may be a better solution.

In coming up with a policy going forward, however, you can’t simply apply an HR-type solution to these kinds of problems.  And when naming and shaming is your most potent weapon to use against an MP who is beholden to an electorate, it’s a question of whether or not you want to deploy it, and what the cost of deploying it will be to the person who does the naming.  We’re seeing that play out now with the two MPs who have been suspended, and we’ll see if they have viable political careers even if they are exonerated once an investigation happens, but it’s likely that they won’t.  It’s a fraught process going forward, and we can only hope that MPs will take it seriously and not make things worse than they already are by doubling down on the partisanship.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

Private Members’ Bills don’t mean much for debate
For want of an activist Speaker
The ethics of crowd-sourcing your re-election
Term limits and the outsider fetish

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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