The best and worst of political leadership on shocking display: Collenette [Toronto Star]

February 4, 2018 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Penny's Pen by

Aside from individual courage, non-partisan leadership will be key to a systemic change in political culture that has revealed a growing number of sexual and workplace harassment allegations, writes Penny Collenette. So far, the signs are encouraging.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel "demonstrated remarkable leadership" whe she "stood in the House of Commons and took not only her own party to task, but also targeted the intertwined 'nexus of power' in Ottawa," writes Penny Collenette.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel “demonstrated remarkable leadership” when she “stood in the House of Commons and took not only her own party to task, but also targeted the intertwined ‘nexus of power’ in Ottawa,” writes Penny Collenette.  (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS

A turning point in society is often born of a distressing past, which must be resolved before moving on to an enlightened future. But much depends on deft leadership. How our politicians handle the growing number of sexual and workplace harassment allegations, which have recently shocked both Parliament and legislatures, will be crucial.

The female “whisper campaign” to beware of certain elected officials has become a megaphone to predatory males across the spectrum. Part of a North American awakening to the misogyny that lurks below professional, political and social spaces, this moment in time is simultaneously painful for its memories and liberating for its honesty.

What are the best practices from other sectors? What works? What doesn’t? Aside from process, what models of leadership will provide effective governance?

Leadership, a word that generally implies “good,” is often associated with power. “Bad” leadership rears its ugly head with a misuse of power, deliberate misconduct (criminal or immoral) or an atmosphere of intimidation.

Patrick Brown and Rick Dykstra, both former federal members of Parliament before becoming leader and president of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party respectively, have spectacularly exhibited bad leadership.

They have disgraced themselves, their supporters and their party with their reported behaviour toward women. Although the allegations have not been proven in court and Brown, in particular, denies the allegations, their party’s justice was swift.

Brown was first to resign. Compounding the rare spectacle of a late night press conference, Brown showed little strength or determination. Shaken and panicked, he literally ran from the media. Dykstra has not made any personal comment except to resign after a serious allegation was levelled at him. His lawyers, however, have denied the accusation.

In contrast, a member of their own party and one of their former federal colleagues, Michelle Rempel, demonstrated remarkable leadership. The MP from Calgary Nose Hill stood in the House of Commons and took not only her own party to task, but also targeted the intertwined “nexus of power” in Ottawa.

She literally spoke truth to power — to all powers. Even the media was included as she suggested that press gallery members should not receive credentials unless they adhere to a formal code of conduct.

Somewhat like Catherine McKenna, the minister of the environment, who called out Rebel Media for their use of the derogatory term “climate Barbie” to describe her, both women showed strength of character and steely determination. It was leadership at its best.

Aside from individual courage, non-partisan leadership will be key to a systemic change in political culture. So far, the signs are encouraging.

The new NDP house leader, Ruth Ellen Brosseau, worked efficiently with Labour Minister Patty Hajdu to achieve unanimous, fast passage of Bill 65 (legislation to strengthen the existing harassment framework for federally regulated workers) to committee for a deeper examination. In turn, Hajdu says she is open to amendments by other parties.

Institutional leadership has also been shown by the Speaker’s Office, which has announced a mandatory sexual harassment training program for all MPs, cabinet ministers and leaders of the parties, including the prime minister.

Personal courage, legislative direction, harassment training and codes of behaviour are all hugely important for a turning point on sexual and workplace harassment. It should also apply to the administration of political parties. For example, staff or volunteers in so-called campaign “war rooms” (a phrase which sadly speaks volumes about party culture) historically are a law unto themselves.

Finally, leaders must decide how to manage allegations that may or may not be anonymous. Both the prime minister and Jagmeet Singh, the NDP leader, have clearly stated that women are to be believed. For women, who have been afraid to come forward with concerns, this change in onus removes a great deal of anguish. But still, tough decisions must be made.

Best practices by organizations encourage internal reporting first, which ensures confidentiality, privacy and a chance to resolve a matter before it is made public. Unfortunately, reporting mechanisms that can be trusted will take time (and money) to implement. For the moment, investigations by truly independent third parties appear to be the safest route to truth.

This week, the Senate, in a timely move, passed gender neutral words to “O Canada.” Thankfully, it is the moment for “all of us” now to show mature resolve and good leadership to put this troubled past behind us. Time is not quite up but the clock is ticking … fast.

Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.