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Why can’t we be friends?

by Julia Kirkey

It’s commonly accepted that in the workplace, all employees aren’t going to be best friends. There can be disputes from time to time but so long as the interaction remains adult and respectful, a professional relationship can be maintained.

The New Democrat’s House Leader, Nathan Cullen, believes that Members of Parliament from all political stripes are crossing that professional line in the House of Commons and has recommended legislation that would penalize MPs for attacks on opposing members that are deemed to be personal in nature.

The legislation calls for a type of four-strike-rule: first a warning, then a loss of a day’s pay and suspension from the House, a third offence would result in a five-day suspension, then up to 20 days for a fourth. Cullen asks why we would accept “harassment, threats, personal attacks or extreme misrepresentation of facts,” in the House of Commons when we won’t accept it in our own workplaces.[i]

All federal employees are protected by the Canada Labour Code’s workplace violence legislation. The Code defines workplace violence as, “any action, conduct, threat or gesture of a person towards an employee in their work place that can reasonably be expected to cause harm, injury or illness to that employee.”[ii]

Cullen’s suggestions are further backed up by the Code when it goes on to say, “workplace violence can include bullying, teasing, and abusive and aggressive behaviour. Progressive disciplinary action should be used to control intentional and unintentional conduct not suitable in the work place, even when it cannot be determined that the conduct could reasonably be expected to cause harm. It may be difficult to assess the anticipated harm, since a factor such as teasing is subjective and can be perceived as playful by some but harmful or malicious by others.”

If the Government of Canada sets out these specific protections and punishments for federal employees, why would they not apply to elected officials? Is this the kind of example we want to set up for the leaders of tomorrow – that the only way you can deliver your message is by yelling, screaming and hurling personal insults?

The Canadian Parliamentary Review issued a comprehensive report in 2011, Heckling in the House of Commons by Mackenzie Grisdale[iii], which studied surveys completed by MPs at the time. In particular, the study looked at the ways that MPs feel their work is affected by the amount of bickering that takes place during sessions. A significant number of MPs reported that they were less likely to participate in work in the House under the threat of being heckled and just as many reported the use of words that conflicted with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – including sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia and discrimination against physical disabilities and religion.

 

Nathan Cullen isn’t the first MP that has asked for these kinds of reforms, either. Grisdale notes that Speaker John Fraser asked that the issue be studied back in 1992 but the House never debated the suggested amendments to the Standing Orders. In 1995, Speaker Peter Miliken was part of a committee that looked into handing down penalties to MPs that used sexist, racist or abusive language including docking their pay and lengthy suspensions but again, it went nowhere.  Interestingly though, many MPs put the onus on the Speaker and blame the heckling on the Speaker’s inability to keep order in the House.

A teacher is powerless in a classroom full of rowdy students if the students know there’s nothing that can be done to them if they don’t “follow the rules”. Without penalties, it’s just empty threats.

The late NDP Leader Jack Layton made a promise that his MPs would not heckle in the House. They haven’t lived up to those expectations[iv] but with Nathan Cullen’s recommendations of penalties to replace empty threats they may come closer to achieving the level of decorum that Layton had in mind.

Being a Member of Parliament does not make you an exception to the law, in any way. These people are all coworkers that should be working together to make their employer (the Canadian taxpayer) satisfied with their work. Arguing, abusive language and near-physical altercations should play no role in the completion of that work – they are no different than every other Canadian worker that is upheld to the standards of the Canada Labour Code and its Health and Safety Regulations protecting everyone from violence in the workplace.

Grisdale’s report shows that sixty per cent of MPs find heckling in the House to be a problem, but just as many saw it as simply a fact of life. Members of Parliament should be passionate about their jobs, that’s why we elected them, but it’s time to put an end to this embarrassing tradition and start demanding elected representatives treat each other the same way we treat our co-workers – with professional respect.

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