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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa rules out banning, monitoring sexual relationships between MPs, staff members

Patty Hajdu in the House of Commons.


The Liberal government has no legislative plans to ban or monitor sexual relationships between MPs and their staffers, even as both the United States and Australia have made similar moves in response to their own recent flurry of high-profile harassment allegations.

Employment Minister Patty Hajdu is spearheading new legislation to protect federal workers, including Parliament Hill staffers, from harassment.

When asked why the government wasn't banning sexual relationships involving MPs and their staffers, Matt Pascuzzo, a spokesman for Ms. Hajdu, replied in an e-mail: "As the minister has said before, legislation is not a panacea for the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in workplaces in Canada.

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"But, as we have always said, these are not the only tools our society has in its toolbox. Culture change requires work, and it will take all of us to see that change through."

Most of the details of the bill, C-65, that specifically affect Parliament Hill, however, will be decided in regulations by MPs themselves. At that point, it would be possible to add a requirement to disclose relationships – although Ms. Hajdu has previously said the legislation is not about consensual relationships.

Parliament has been grappling with allegations of sexual misconduct even before the #MeToo movement empowered more women around the world to speak up against harassment and assault. Independent MP Hunter Tootoo resigned from the Liberal caucus and as a cabinet minister in the spring of 2016 for what he later admitted was a consensual but inappropriate relationship with a junior staffer.

The other parties have also been dealing with sexual-misconduct allegations, including former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown (with allegations dating back to his time as an MP, which he denies) and NDP MP Peter Stoffer, who has apologized for his behaviour but denied assaulting or abusing anyone. Former Liberal MP Darshan Kang is also facing sexual-harassment allegations, as is former cabinet minister Kent Hehr.

Ottawa's approach to dealing with sexual harassment appears to differ in another respect from the one being taken in other countries – the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress will appoint independent, non-partisan advisers as one-stop shops to handle complaints at the early stages.

Max Cameron, director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia, says an expert office is necessary to avoid conflicts of interest, protect the integrity of the Parliament and make sure complaints are handled appropriately.

"Working as a staffer on Parliament Hill is not a 9-to-5 job, and it is not like working at Air Canada," Mr. Cameron said. "There are enormous power imbalances." It is also in the interest of MPs to ensure complaints are handled properly, he said. Although they cannot be fired, "the price they pay when allegations come to the surface is very high."

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A parliamentary committee is currently studying the Liberal government's Bill C-65, which Ms. Hajdu introduced late last year to strengthen employer obligations on sexual harassment, along with other forms of violence and bullying, under the Canada Labour Code. For the first time, parliamentary staff will also be included in the bill.

But the details – including the actual process for handing complaints on the Hill – will only come later in regulations and after further consultations, government officials told The Globe and Mail. Ms. Hajdu has also said that MPs could be "named and shamed" in a report tabled in Parliament if they fail to comply with their own anti-harassment policy, but it is unclear if they would face fines.

The regulations on Parliament Hill will be decided, Mr. Pascuzzo confirmed, by the Board of Internal Economy, which is chaired by the Speaker of the Commons and includes six MPs from all three major parties, including two ministers. Government officials said the rules would likely mirror those of the Canada Labour Code.

But Ms. Hajdu's office has said it would be too difficult to legislate relationships between politicians and staff. At this point, there will also be no requirement to report those relationships to determine whether there are ethical implications, evidence of favouritism or an abuse of power, as is common in private companies. Asked previously by The Globe about putting in place rules for relationships between bosses and junior staffers, Ms. Hajdu said: "This isn't about consensual relationships. It's about power, and the abuse of power."

Employment experts interviewed by The Globe said that while an outright ban might prove legally problematic, could encourage secrecy and be hard to police, a requirement to report relationships should be mandatory.

"You should absolutely have to disclose," David Whitten, a Toronto-based employment lawyer at Whitten and Lubin said. "It creates a level of accountability." It also protects the junior staffer from repercussions. A disclosure requirement is standard practice in the private sector, he said, where one of the parties would typically have to move offices. Under current administrative rules, MPs are not allowed to hire members of their immediate family, including spouses, or their designated travellers.

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Last month, in a rare unanimous vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a law prohibiting relationships between politicians and their staff, and included the creation of an employee advocacy office. Two weeks ago, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull expressly banned cabinet ministers from having sex with staffers – dubbed the #bonkban on social media – by amending their code of conduct. This came after a scandal involving the country's deputy prime minister who had an extramarital affair with his former press secretary, now pregnant with his child. The European Commission has created a network of specially trained confidential counsellors to handle sexual-misconduct complaints.

Ms. Hajdu's office said that an independent adviser is unnecessary in Canada because occupational health and safety investigators in the Labour department will serve as an outside contact. This will include a 1-800 number and what the department calls "a resource hub" with specially trained staff. But department investigators don't investigate actual incidents of harassment – only whether employers followed their own policies to prevent and deal with alleged incidents.

Lior Samfiru, a partner at Samfiru Tumarkin, who specializes in employment law, said that access to a clearly independent adviser would "absolutely be a good thing."

Employees, he said, need to "have the security of knowing that if an employer becomes aware, they won't be penalized. Otherwise no one would make the call. It doesn't matter how much anonymity they are promised."

At the same time, Mr. Whitten suggested that experts in the labour department could serve this role, if they receive good training and are seen as a trusted, first contact for Hill employees that exists outside the partisan workplace. But he also pointed out that the current practice – which the minister's office says will continue – of encouraging staffers to speak first to their MPs, or complain within their party, is not effective.

"You cannot have it handled within the party," Mr. Whitten said. "They have a vested interest in brushing it under the rug." (Staffers may also go to the House Chief Human Resources Officer, who would then take the matter to the party involved. Between 2015 and 2017, a parliamentary report said the office received only four inquiries about sexual harassment, and no official complaints.)

Mr. Whitten pointed out that employees are usually reluctant to bring the matter to their bosses anyway. In that case, the minister has said MPs will each appoint their own contact person to receive complaints. "How do we make sure those people are trained, and that there's a consistency in the way they deal with this?" Mr. Whitten asked. "That's a stupid idea."

The legislation could still change as it makes its way through a parliamentary committee and returns to the House of Commons for a final vote, which Ms. Hajdu has said she hopes will happen by June.

Employment Minister Patty Hajdu opened debate Monday in the House on legislation aiming to make federal workplaces, including Parliament Hill, safer from bullying and sexual misconduct. Hajdu says the proposed changes are “overdue.” The Canadian Press
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