Those questions beg one more: if the allegations are proven true, what fixes are required, that is to say what effect should the outcome have on public policies?
Bullying is complicated even in the words and context used to describe it. Now that vile behaviours have joined the day-to-day experiences of Ministers and MHAs, and are increasingly part of the political lexicon, commentators and the public have an obligation to include them in debate — as fraught with risk as such a polarizing issue may seem.
|Former Finance Minister, Cathy Bennett (Photo Credit: CBC)|
To begin, many advocates believe that allegations of bullying should be accepted on their face. Such a position underscores the complexity of the matter for sure, but the suggestion is contrary to how our legal system works and to notions of fairness, too, which affords the presumption of innocence of alleged misbehavers until proven guilty.
Adding to the complexity is the inherently competitive — sometimes aggressive — arena of politics. Is this not context for oxymoron? Isn’t this the place where this admonition is most often invoked: if you can't take the heat get out of the kitchen? Of course, those who have experienced or even have simply studied bullying would certainly not think the issue nearly so simple. Indeed, no one should.
Still, it does seem a pity that Roosevelt’s euphemism for high office —“bully pulpit”, the word bully once meaning “superb” or “wonderful” — should now share an association with violence of the nastiest kind.
Why would we be surprised? In the post-Harvey Weinstein world there is, rightfully, little tolerance for the crude and the unruly. Sufferers are all too aware that bullying is as insidious as it is cruel, hurtful and soul-destroying.
Whether it occurs within corporations, governments or legislatures, whether the most senior perpetrators offer a sneer, utter a disparaging remark or exhibit the equivalent in body language, people are made to fearful and unwell. Unhealthy working environments result, and productivity is affected.
No one can deny that Cathy Bennett likely suffered an enormous pounding from a good many miscreants before she went public with her experience. It took a lot of guts to stand up and be an accuser, especially when tolerance for many types of behaviours in the political sphere will often default along partisan lines. There is an even more challenging problem, however. It is in the nature of bullying that it is not so easy to point a finger at one specific person or to a single comment or event.
In her extensive interview with CBC, Bennett stated that, in her case, “the bullying she experienced was often very sophisticated and nuanced, and pointed more to a cultural problem than specific earth-shattering examples.”
The point she makes confirms the reason that those caught in that tricky, embarrassing and hurtful place don't come forward and don't file formal written complaints.
There is nothing new in any of these comments. What is new is that Bennett has essentially put the Government on trial, such is the extreme level of bullying she experienced. Other MHAs have now joined her in bullying’s miserable grip.
Bennett claims that her “work space” had become toxic, contaminated with behaviours from “bullying” to “isolation”. She invokes the term “mild gaslighting” (whose definition I had to look up) as well as “intimidation”. Bennett states that she experienced “real fear”.
These are serious allegations to be made about any work environment, but they assume an even greater urgency when the highest levels of government stand accused.
Indeed, her descriptions are so patently disturbing that, notwithstanding ostensibly legitimate personal reasons, it seems to be in the public interest, if not her own, to have them investigated. Without investigation and an independent assessment of their veracity, taking into consideration, as she states, the absence of “specific earth-shattering examples” of the torments, how are we to know her allegations are not, at least in part, politically motivated?
Some who better understand bullying and its debilitating impacts will bristle at the suggestion of independent examination, while others will suggest that the victims just need to be tougher. The fact that we all know that bullying is a huge problem on school playgrounds, in businesses and in government offices suggests that when the same behaviours are associated with high office, the accusations present an opportunity for even the more obscure aspects of bullying to be held up to the light. And for that reason, I want to take the conversation along a slight detour.
Related to this Post:
Politics is a place where conflict — though not necessarily bullying — is endemic.
In this arena, opinions are raised to the level of passions. People feel very strongly about political decisions, whether they are fighting over money to fill potholes or for a school whose repair has long been neglected. Indeed, public policy debates of all kinds are often so argumentative that it is very easy to imply that one or more actors have engaged in bullying. Those conversations occur all the time in Cabinet, Caucus, the House of Assembly, and in various public forums.
But just as politics isn't always about public policy, bullying isn't just about aggressive and heated argument.
A complicating factor is the nature of politics. Ultimately, it is about power — attaining it and keeping it. People will use a lot of energy, ingenuity and even the tools of backstabbing and innuendo (and a whole lot more) to stay on top. To that extent, at least, the problem is cultural or worse. It maybe the way we are hard-wired.
Sometimes such behaviours are matters of give and take. And while it may seem unfair to even raise the prospect that Ms. Bennett is using the advantages afforded by the “bully pulpit” to skewer through innuendo and vagueness, we know that she is refused complete validation. Even inside the Caucus occupied by her colleagues, including the Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, there are different interpretations of what occurred.
One of the three female Ministers has made a formal complaint against Eddie Joyce. Two deny having experienced the intimidation and bullying “alluded to” by Bennett, according to the CBC.
Lisa Dempster commented: “From my experience at the cabinet table and in caucus. I have not seen [that], nor have I experienced [it].”
Siobhan Coady, the Minister of Natural Resources and Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, said: “Did I feel it was bullying, intimidation to me? No. But every person's different in how they interpret things, aren't they?”
Dempster neither saw nor experienced intimidation and bullying, yet the behaviours were pervasive, according to Bennett.
Coady, on the other hand, seems to have witnessed certain behaviours, but judged “it” to be not bullying or intimidation. The “it”, she asserts, is a matter of interpretation — essentially a question of how differences are perceived, suggesting that one person’s “bully” is another’s “boor”.
There should be no expectation that either Dempster or Coady was always present when Bennett suffered insults or innuendo. But their comments confirm how difficult it may be for Ms. Bennett to be believed. Each is entitled to their own appraisal by proximity to the people and the place at issue but we also know that, apart from perspective, they have personal and partisan self-interests to offer, too. We cannot give more weight to them than to former Minister Bennett.
In the same vein, Bennett’s suggestion that some of the bullying is “cultural” would have one believe that at least some of the men and women who have served in politics over the years were poorly treated within those Offices.
Naturally, an appraisal such as the one given by Bennett gives pause for reflection on an earlier time in politics. Though I was never a Member of either Cabinet or Caucus, I typically witnessed an immense amount of camaraderie and mutual respect among Members and Ministers. For all the talk of politics being a blood sport, if you talk with (male) Ministers and MHAs who have served in the past, and other public servants who witnessed their behaviour, you will find agreement that disrespect — or worse, “bullying” — is not something to which they were exposed. Admittedly, I do wonder if the female Members would be unanimous with the males in this assertion, though most former Caucuses contained far fewer than presently.
Cathy Bennett’s recent experiences appear to be very different. Her narrative suggests that she operated within a toxic cauldron of misbehaviour, isolation, bile, and boorishness. Bennett only served in one Government: that of Premier Ball.
It may be natural to wonder if her insertion into the issue of bullying is coincident with the timing and the grievances of her colleagues and, indeed, whether it has any relationship with the forthcoming Liberal Party’s AGM on June 15. Likely the next part of this narrative will confirm that the latter concern is unwarranted and that it is simply borne out of the persistent search for linkages that occupy the mindset of those who constantly assess the political business – or it could simply be pettiness.
Politics has one dynamic that affords illumination regarding practices that are opaque. It is that a great deal of politics is practiced in a very public way. This is, in fact, the part of the narrative that unreservedly validates Bennett’s claims. Her loss of political power, upon leaving the Ball Cabinet, involved matters played out quite publicly.
Bennett’s 2016 Budget was a political failure. The tax measures and the poorly-conceived cuts it contained, especially to the library system, caused a public outcry so vociferous that many turned on their local MHAs. (I have characterized her Budget far differently, but that is another story.) Some of them, in turn, invoked the same wrath towards Bennett, and it is common knowledge that she received no support from Premier Ball, though he was her co-architect in the Budget’s design.
As public rancour grew, she was isolated by him (one of the types of bullying Bennett says she endured) from the normal consultation processes in which his Office engaged - which, in the case of the Finance Department, are frequent. This fact was well known throughout the Government and within the small circle of Ministers and MHAs. (I wrote about it several times on this Blog and wondered why she chose to stay in Cabinet under the circumstances.) This inability to be either decisive or astute, however, is no basis whatever for meting out or accepting abuse.
Unquestionably, the soured relationship between Ball and Bennett effectively constituted the perfect environment for bullying to occur. The Minister’s open isolation constituted a signal, sent wittingly or otherwise, to those with a penchant for such behaviours that she was fair game.
Ball ought to have seen the emerging environment of disrespect and demanded that the behaviours stop. They were competitors before, both having competed for the Liberal Leadership. Now they were arch enemies; Ball holding all the cards. As Premier he ought to have understood that anything except an atmosphere of mutual respect would be corrosive and destructive. Members of his Caucus, as in any business or organization, needed his enforced example — his respectful leadership — to ensure a constructive, respectful and collegial working atmosphere.
The alternative was to fire the Minister as soon as their personal relationship broke down, which he ought to have done; else she should have quit his Cabinet. Such a choice would not have saved her from the worst behaviours exhibited on social media, but this kind of decision – from either party - constitutes an integral component of working in or managing people in a stressful, rough-and-tumble working environment.
That said, for all its persuasiveness, the narrative is still incomplete for the purposes of altering public policy. The question remains: does Cathy Bennett’s story meet a standard of proof that the problem is so pervasive that new rules are needed to govern the behaviours of the elected, and that a new adjudication mechanism is required, too?
In the CBC interview and others, Ms. Bennett’s characterizations of her own experience seem to exceed the limited purpose of supporting complaints made by Sherry Gambin-Walsh and Tracey Perry. In the crosshairs is Premier Ball who, few would disagree, Bennett — in the vernacular of the street — throws under the bus.
Was it reasonable for Bennett to ascribe to the Premier the status of villain in such circumstances?
Seen from the perspective of either the victim or just of fair-mindedness, who can argue that she has rightfully saddled him with responsibility not just for failing to provide leadership at its most basic level and at a critical time but, in fact, for enabling some of the very worst behaviours she describes?
Again, publicly-known facts direct attention to the Ball Administration as a place of dysfunction. Elements of the Sherry Gambin-Walsh complaint, in which the Leader of the Opposition — not the Premier — is the (real) whistleblower for the Liberal Minister, is confirmation that Dwight Ball is oblivious not just to the existential economic problems facing the province, but to important and destructive events going on around him.
These are not necessarily “cultural” issues in the manner of historically successive failures of leadership at the highest level. Doubtlessly, other Liberal and Tory Administrations have been populated by their share of boors, but unless new information is uncovered, we can assume that the most egregious problem of bullying is a toxic product of this largely leaderless Administration.
Does this conclusion suggest the need for a range of policies that govern behaviour among the elected? I don’t think so. I do not think the case has been made that we have to alter the way politics is played, or that there is any need to inhibit politics as a forum where passions are on display and social, economic and political priorities are debated.
That, however, is not a manner of suggesting the status quo. I would quickly offer two thoughts, in addition to the repeated assertion that the Government might operate more effectively on several different levels if this Premier was told to go:
1. The idea of a male adjudicator, including the Commissioner of Legislative Standards, adjudicating issues of bullying made by women only underscores how misunderstood the issue is by the Premier. Tracey Perry’s assertion that complaints should be handled “completely independent of government” misses the point, too. At minimum, such issues should be heard by a tribunal having cross-gender representation.
2. What better place than the Legislature, which is first and foremost where laws are made, to debate public policies? The House of Assembly, for years, has been underutilized; the need to vote supplies its primary purpose. This limited role only perpetuates the notion of politics as a vehicle to secure each district’s piece of the pie. Political passions, in a province with so many problems including deficient institutions, should be raised in pursuit of more enduring outcomes. Debates about the pervasive problem of bullying are long overdue. Cathy Bennett, Sherry Gambin-Walsh and Tracey Perry could lead off.
I am sure that the Speaker could find a way to require the miscreants to be present, if not to listen. And when Members are tired of this particular issue, the Speaker could select a few more from the Democracy Cookbook edited by Alex Marland and Lisa Moore, many of which underscore the dearth of considered public policy debate in this province. That the House of Assembly is closed for much of the year constitutes all the evidence needed to confirm that we have a fundamental inability to recognize even our most protracted problems.
It is time that some elected Members were required to use their minds, rather than their mouths or some other body part. The toxic atmosphere inside Cabinet and Caucus illuminates the bullying issue, but it confirms the larger problem too.
NL is suffering a crisis of leadership, and it permeates not just public policy but also the fundamental relationships between elected Members.
At the moment, the most proper and effective “fix” is that this Premier should go.