MPs find numerous obstacles in way of developing harassment policy

Law experts lists obstacles in way of MP code of conduct

‘The more you think and talk about it, the more it raises questions,’ deputy law clerk tells MPs

CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward

CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward

OTTAWA — Members of Parliament are discovering there’s a good reason why there’s never been a policy governing allegations of misconduct between MPs: because there’s no easy way to do it.

A multi-party subcommittee has been tasked with coming up with a code of conduct for MPs and a procedure for dealing with complaints, following an unprecedented sexual harassment scandal last fall that resulted in two MPs being suspended from the Liberal caucus.

But the subcommittee’s work is going nowhere fast as members grapple with the legal challenges involved in trying to regulate the behaviour of partisan individuals who operate in a unique environment.

Unlike other workplaces, there is no employer-employee relationship between MPs, all of whom are considered equals.

Moreover, MPs enjoy greater freedom of speech than ordinary Canadians, protected by parliamentary privilege from defamation or libel suits.

And they routinely use that freedom to demean, belittle and humiliate one another — conduct that is often defined as harassment in other workplaces.

An even thornier issue is whether a harassment policy would apply only to behaviour that occurs within the parliamentary precinct or should be extended to cover MPs when they socialize or attend events together off Parliament Hill.

Richard Denis, the House of Commons’ deputy law clerk, warned subcommittee members Monday that applying a policy beyond the parliamentary precinct would amount to trying to regulate MPs’ private lives — a risky proposition.

Yet the harassment incidents that triggered the subcommittee’s work are alleged to have occurred off Parliament Hill.

The various challenges enumerated by Denis disheartened subcommittee chairman Joe Preston.

“With each question, I’m getting deeper into the abyss of, ‘Holy crap, what are we dealing with here?'” the Conservative MP blurted at one point.

“The more you think and talk about it, the more it raises questions. So this is certainly a difficult one,” acknowledged Denis.

Whatever the subcommittee eventually comes up with will not apply to Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews, who were turfed from the Liberal caucus last fall after Leader Justin Trudeau was informed of sexual harassment complaints by two female New Democrat MPs.

Pacetti and Andrews have denied any wrongdoing.

After the two women refused to take part in a confidential, independent third-party probe, Trudeau appointed lawyer Cynthia Petersen to investigate the allegations. She is expected to hand him her conclusions some time this winter.