Federal political party leaders must relay a message — particularly to men — that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated, says former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.
Leadership requires letting members of an organization know where the boss stands personally, while clear sexual harassment policies must be disseminated to the ranks with guidance on how to use them, she added.
“Say to the men in your party, ‘Look, I know I am not speaking to all of you, but if there‘s any kind of this behaviour it has to stop and if we found out there is some of it, it is going to come out and we are going to deal with it,‘ ” Ambrose, who resigned last July as the MP for Sturgeon River-Parkland, said in an interview.
Ambrose‘s comments follow a Canadian Press survey of female MPs in which more than half of respondents — 58 per cent — reported they had personally been the target of one or more forms of sexual misconduct while in office, including inappropriate or unwanted remarks, gestures or text messages of a sexual nature.
Thirty-eight of the 89 women in the Commons took part in the voluntary, anonymous survey that has generated reactions inside political Ottawa including from Green party Leader Elizabeth May, who likened the work environment of political staffers to the star culture that exists in Hollywood.
“There are political equivalents of the casting couch,” May said last week. “If you want to get ahead in certain political parties, you do not want to offend people who are seen to be movers and shakers.”
Ambrose agrees with May that young political staffers and interns are most vulnerable to harassment because they could be fired without cause and fear the political ramifications of speaking up.
“I would worry a lot that they may not know where to go,” Ambrose said. “I think that‘s the biggest issue.”
Party loyalty may be barrier to speaking up
She said she personally encouraged staff to raise concerns directly with her about misconduct, adding she remains worried that things like party loyalty may be barriers for women on the Hill who seek to speak up.
Political organizations differ from other types of organizations, Ambrose added.
“In politics, you‘ve got that same concern around brand image, reputational damage, but that should not be a reason to not address these issues,” she said. “I just think we have to do more, particularly around the staff issue.”
Leadership matters even more for this reason, she said.
“Everyone in those organizations are partisans, they‘re party loyalists, they‘re party activists to a certain extent,” she said. “If they hear their leader say that, it carries a lot of weight so it really makes a difference.”
Former NDP MP Peggy Nash, who ran to lead her party in 2012, agrees political leaders have an obligation to send a message about unacceptable behaviour, noting education and training are also critical.
Tone ‘set from the top‘
“The tone is always set from the top, whether it is a political party, a corporation, a community organization,” Nash said.
“Part of setting that tone is education. There is no excuse for any cabinet minister or committee member or any person in a position of power to say that they don‘t understand consent or to say they don‘t understand gender bias.”
Movements like #MeToo have the power to permeate Parliament Hill but that has yet to happen, Ambrose added, noting she believes people will come forward slowly as they feel more comfortable.
“It is not about a witch hunt,” she said.
“It is about making change — making institutional change, cultural change, social change.”
Electing more women will help
Electing more women will help with structural reform required, former Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps said Tuesday.
“That accelerates the change,” Copps said. “If you have a safe place where you can go to complain and you know it is going to be heard and you know it is not going to kill your career or be misinterpreted by people who use it against you to destroy your integrity.”
She also believes movements like #MeToo will help to give women courage to speak up about what they‘ve experienced.
“When you‘re alone, it is a lot tougher to be the voice,” Copps said.
“Hollywood and politics are two very public domains … I think the power imbalances are greater there.”