A Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet minister has stepped aside amid harassment allegations, in what political observers say is a fresh sign of the shift in how society discusses harassment.
Premier Dwight Ball said Municipal Affairs Minister Eddie Joyce will step aside from his duties during an external review of harassment allegations involving fellow Liberal cabinet member Sherry Gambin-Walsh.
After a meeting with Joyce, Ball later added the minister had “volunteered now to remove himself from caucus.”
“I received a complaint from an MHA in my caucus about alleged undue behaviour exhibited by a member of my caucus,” he said in a statement earlier Thursday.
“I proactively addressed the public to make them aware of the situation and stress that the complaints were being taken very seriously. I also indicated that I would be working with the complainant to initiate processes in accordance with their comfort and wishes in a prompt manner. I commend the complainant for coming forward.”
Ball added the allegation against Joyce is not sexual in nature.
The scandal follows the suspension earlier this month of Chris Collins, Speaker of the New Brunswick Legislature, from the Liberal caucus after allegations of bullying and harassment were made against him. As well, federal NDP MP Erin Weir of Saskatchewan was suspended from caucus in February for unspecified harassment allegations.
Kelly Blidook, a political science professor at Memorial University, says this bizarre chronology of events is the result of a moment of “upheaval” where people want to speak up, but don’t feel they have anywhere to go.
“Mechanisms aren’t in place where people feel empowered to take action. That’s why we saw, I’d say, a very sloppy process of this information coming out here,” Blidook said.
The allegations first came to light when Progressive Conservative Leader Paul Davis raised questions in the house of assembly about whether the premier had received complaints of bullying or harassing behaviour in the Liberal ranks. Davis said he had information from Liberal members that people feel bullied.
Ball said he wasn’t aware of harassment taking place within the party. Gambin-Walsh, the Service NL minister, said Thursday she told the premier at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday about the allegations.
Melanee Thomas, who researches gender and politics at the University of Calgary, says the growing public discussion around harassment and safe workplaces, stemming from phenomena like the #MeTOO movement, have made people more interested in interrogating how people, particularly women, are treated in different workplace contexts.
One of the reasons governments are behind at implementing structural harassment policies and procedures is because they are often not perceived as workplaces, Thomas says. She also suggested that governments have been slow to implement clear protocols around harassment because politics is male-dominated.
“The people who are on the receiving end of harassment are often women,” said Thomas. “Politics is a place where we don’t have a whole lot of women, so there are any number of policies and procedures that aren’t in place precisely because women would need to access them more than men would.”
In the case of Newfoundland and Labrador, these anti-harassment policies are currently in development.
Blidook pointed to former finance minister Cathy Bennett’s public discussion of cyber-bullying and body-shaming as kickstarting a conversation about how to treat people in elected positions.
In February, the government announced a new harassment-free government workplace policy that will take effect on June 1. The policy will include sensitivity training, a 90-day-timeline for investigations, and a consistent access point for complainants.
Blidook sees this as a promising first step, but he anticipates more mismanaged incidents before the streamlined complaint process becomes effective.
“I do think we’re going to see more of this before we actually get very good at it,” Blidook says. “I think it’s going to be sort of a long process. But that’s probably because it’s so much more prevalent than we realize.”
Ball said Justice Minister Andrew Parsons will take over Joyce’s duties during the review.
Gambin-Walsh told reporters Thursday she has had “a difficult week as an MHA, and a difficult week as a woman.”
She added: “I encourage anybody out there who has experienced harassment to come forward.”
Joyce, meantime, denied being a bully.
“I have no idea where anybody ever said that I was a bully,” he told reporters.